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Question Time’s new editor needs to create a serious programme for these serious times

Interrogating decision-makers is still what journalism needs to do.

The BBC’s Question Time programme has a new editor. She’s Hilary O’Neill, a no-nonsense journalist who was most recently deputy editor of the News at Ten and is a former colleague of mine on the Today programme.

Her appointment turns out to be one of the last made by the outgoing director of BBC News, James Harding, who announced this week that he is standing down. But it is, say insiders, a reflection of the greater importance Harding and BBC News want to place on Question Time; and O’Neill underlined that in the press release. She described Question Time as “the highest-profile… public debate programme in the UK”, adding that “in these tumultuous political times it’s never been more important to hold politicians to account.”

She inherits a show that, like many others, is only just starting to get to grips with the tumult around it. The recent flurry about the content of BBC Radio 4’s Today reflects the crisis in our politics and the challenge of getting something useful out of Westminster-based interviews. But interrogating decision-makers is still what journalism needs to do, and the flagship programmes of the BBC are where the nation is watching and listening.

Question Time has an audience that’s usually at least four times greater than that of Newsnight or Channel 4 News, and its format gives it the ability to spark exchanges between leaders and voters that are illuminating and memorable. The BBC is right to try to renew its relevance.

The current run of Question Time shows that David Dimbleby, who is 79 this month, remains adept as a chairman, but the internal BBC discussion about his successor, which has been going on for a decade or more, will at some point need to come to a conclusion. More immediately, the problem is how to re-cast the panels.

It was striking how a particular generation of politicians were the ones who brought the programme to life: Shirley Williams, Tony Benn, Charles Kennedy, Michael Heseltine, Ken Clarke. Now the main parties produce too many frontbench clones who never knowingly deviate from the talking points of the day, and lack the ability to speak human. As the Tory party drifts to the right and Labour to the left, there is more confrontation and less enlightenment.

This is manifested in the studio audiences. Corbynistas, Nats and Ukippers tend to make more noise than the retreating Blairites or Tory moderates, and some editions – notably the one from Plymouth in the summer – have had an ugly atmosphere. There is nothing wrong with fervent believers getting stuck in, but the absence of angry claques of the open-minded shouldn’t put centrist positions at a disadvantage. I’ve spoken to former panellists who now turn down invitations because of the venom of the responses to them in the studio and on social media.

As an attempt at leavening the mix, the invitation list has long included not just politicians and journalists but celebrities and comedians. The footballer Joey Barton was entertaining as a one-off, as was Russell Brand debating with the ubiquitous Nigel Farage. What is revealing, though, is how few of them make a return appearance; and these serious times should demand a more serious Question Time.

And there is an obvious gap in the programme’s casting: it shies away from experts. This is not about allowing the forces of the establishment to browbeat the public, as Michael Gove feared during the EU referendum campaign. It simply involves putting on air some people who know their subject inside out. There has, for instance, been an inability to tackle the Brexit negotiating positions of the Conservatives or Labour – partly because there are obfuscations they share. So why not add an EU expert from academia or a think tank who can expose the evasions? Similarly, scientists rarely get a look-in on Question Time panels. This is not about filling the panel with hidden partisans or purveyors of centrist goo: rather, it’s about challenging views that are at odds with the facts and bursting the balloons of wishful thinking.

There’s a logic here that the programme might spend more time on major topics. Good. It also might usefully thin out some panels. In fairness, the producers have had to juggle with the multiplicity of minor parties who merit exposure because of their parliamentary representation; but the result of the last election showed a strengthening of the big two parties and should result in some of the smaller groupings being given fewer outings. There is, of course, evidence of how a concentration on the people with power can result in excellent programmes and the highest ratings: the leaders’ specials during the election campaign were examples of what the format can deliver.

Just consider how simple that is. It is an audience of voters with one leader at a time; and it breaks through in a way that multiparty debates sadly don’t. It’s also an invitation that no party leader can dodge. In this year’s campaign editions, Theresa May was rattled by persistent questioning from a nurse about NHS pay, and Jeremy Corbyn was irritated by interrogation about Trident – and both were illuminating moments. Similarly, it was on Question Time that David Cameron delivered his most impassioned performance of the EU referendum campaign.

More of these specials would be welcome, and they point to the opportunities in scheduling too. It should be possible to think of Question Time being placed at 9pm every week, and allowing the excellent This Week to move earlier too. That would be a resounding statement by the BBC about the importance of current affairs, now more than ever. 

Roger Mosey is the Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge. He was formerly editorial director and the director of London 2012 at the BBC.

This article first appeared in the 12 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How May crumbled

The University Challenge final. Photo: BBC iPlayer
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Why University Challenge is deliberately asking more questions about women

Question setters and contestants on how the show finally began to gender-balance its questions – and whether it’s now harder as a result.

University Challenge has long had a gender problem. When the show first started airing in 1962, some Oxbridge colleges were still refusing to admit women as undergraduates; in the decades since, women have been consistently outnumbered by men, with all-male teams still a regular occurrence. Those women that did appear were all too regularly criticised and objectified in equal measure by audiences: notable contestants like Hannah Rose Woods, Emma Johnson, Samantha Buzzard and Sophie Rudd have experienced intense media scrutiny and criticised the sexism of the show and audiences. In recent years, sexism rows have dogged the show.

How satisfying, then, to see two women carrying their teams in last night’s final: Rosie McKeown for winners St John’s, Cambridge, and Leonie Woodland for runners-up Merton, Oxford. Both secured the majority of points for their teams – McKeown with visible delight, Woodland looking unsure even as she delivered correct answer after correct answer.

But there is another site of sexism on University Challenge, one that earns less column inches: the questions. Drawing on all areas of history, science, language, economics and culture, the questions often concern notable thinkers, artists, scientists, and sportspeople. Of course, our society’s patriarchal hierarchies of achievement have meant that the subjects of these questions are mostly men. General knowledge is, after all, a boys’ club.

Over the course of this 2017-8 series, though, I noticed a shift. More women than ever seemed to be making their way into the questions, at times with deliberate reference to the inherent sexism of their lack of cultural prominence. On 5 February, there was a picture round devoted to female composers, with contestents asked to identify Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Rachel Portman and Bjork from photographs, who, Paxman explained, are all “women that are now listed in the EdExcel A Level music syllabus after the student Jessy McCabe petitioned the exam board in 2015.” Episodes have included bonus rounds on “prominent women” (the writer Lydia Davis, the pilot Lydia Litvyak, and the golfer Lydia Ko), “women born in the 1870s and 80s” (Rosa Luxemburg, Elizabeth Arden and Vanessa Bell), and the female philosophers Mary Midgely, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

Elsewhere, questions raise a knowing eyebrow at the patriarchal assumptions behind so much of intellectual endeavour. A music round on famous rock bands quoted the music critic Kelefa Sanneh’s definition “rockism”: “the belief that white macho guitar music is superior to all other forms of popular music”. Another, on opera, quoted Catherine Clement’s Opera, Or The Undoing of Women, which explores how traditional opera plots frequently feature “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies”. “Your music bonuses are three such operas,” Paxman said dryly, to audience laughter.

University Challenge’s questions editor Thomas Benson confirms that there has been a deliberate attempt to redress a gender imbalance in the quiz. “About three years ago, a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained very few questions on women,” he explains. “We agreed and decided to do something about it.”

Last night’s final included a picture round on artists with works concerning motherhood (Mary Casatt, Lousie Bourgeois, Leanora Carrington and Frida Kahlo) and a music round on Marin Alsop, the first woman to ever conduct the Last Night of the Proms, as well as sets of bonuses on the American writer Willa Kather and Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene.

Former winner Hannah Rose Woods is delighted by the increase in such questions. “I think it’s fantastic!” she tells me. “These things are really important in changing people’s perceptions about women in the past, and the way women’s contributions to science and the arts have often been written out of history. We need to keep challenging the idea of the White Male Canon.”

Last night’s winner Rosie McKeown says that while she didn’t necessarily notice a deliberate attempt to gender balance the questions, she was “very pleased with the quality of those questions that did come up”.

“Although it wasn’t in one of our matches,” she tells me, “I thought the picture round on female composers was especially good for highlighting women’s achievements.”

For all the enthusiasm for these questions, in the studio they’re often met with blank stares. While University Challenge questions are broad and imaginatively posed, there are some reliable revision topics and techniques: from Nobel laureates and the years of their wins to identifying famous paintings and classical music excerpts. McKeown says she has been a religious viewer of the show since she was 11 years old, and admits to watching reruns of the show to prepare. Shift the kinds of answers you might be looking for, and teams may struggle.

“Do we know any female British composers?” Leonie Woodland said weakly, looking at a picture of Ethel Smyth. Trying to come up with a female Muslim Nobel laureate, one contestant desperately suggested Aung San Suu Kyi. Asked to provide a first name linking an American concert pianist with the sister of Lazarus one male contestant still buzzed in with “Daniel”.

“Even if we didn’t always get them right,” McKeown tells me, citing that round on female philosophers, which saw them pass on every question, as an example, “it was great to see so many important female figures represented.”

“I don't think the questions about women necessarily affected our performance, but it’s certainly a very good thing that they were there and I hope that they’ll arouse people’s interest in the women featured and in their achievements.”

Benson believes that it hasn’t had a significant effect on performance. “The great majority of the questions that feature women are no different to any others, in that they sit firmly within the realm of standard academic general knowledge.”

He notes that they often refer to historical and background details, citing sets of bonuses on Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki and British physicist Hertha Ayrton, which both teams answered correctly in full. “Though Ozeki and Ayrton may not be household names, the questions are definitely answerable and deal with central themes in their work and achievements.”

It’s easy to brush off the significance of a fairly geeky Monday night BBC quiz show, but University Challenge still regularly pulls in three million viewers. In any case, a show like University Challenge has a cultural significance that outweighs its viewing figures. It helps to shape our understanding of which subjects are intellectual or important, which are history’s most notable achievements, and who is worth learning about. To ignore questions of identity is to risk intellectual laziness, relying on tired ideas of canonical figures – or worse, supremacist propaganda, privileging the achievements of white men over all others.

Quite aside from making for less predictable and more enjoyable television, by including questions on the likes of Stevie Smith, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Myra Hess, Margaret Mead, and Beryl Bainbridge, University Challenge can diversify the mental encyclopaedias of its viewers, be it a tweed-wearing 60-year-old in Leamington Spa or an 11-year-old like Rosie McKeown with her own dreams of one day competing. It has a responsibility to do so.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.