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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

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Can a “Momentum moment” revive the fortunes of Germany’s SPD?

Support for the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, behind the far right Alternative for Germany.

Germany has crossed a line: for the first time in the history of the federal republic, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, polling just 15.5 per cent – half a point behind the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The poll was published on the day the SPD membership received their postal ballots on whether to enter another grand coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, and inflamed debate further.

For the grassroots coalition opposed to the so-called GroKo (Große Koalition) the poll is proof that the SPD needs a fundamental change of political direction. Within the two grand coalitions of recent years, the SPD has completely lost its political profile. The beneficiary each time has been the far right. Yet another GroKo seems likely to usher in the end of the SPD as a Volkspartei (people’s party). Taking its place would be the AfD, a deeply disturbing prospect.

For the SPD leadership, the results are proof that the party must enter a grand coalition. Failure to do so would likely mean new elections (though this is disputed, as a minority government is also a possibility) and an SPD wipeout. The SPD’s biggest problem, they argue, is not a bad political programme, but a failure to sell the SPD’s achievements to the public.

But is it? The richest 45 Germans now own as much as the bottom 50 per cent. According to French economist Thomas Piketty, German income inequality has now sunk to levels last seen in 1913. Perhaps most shockingly, the nominally left-wing SPD has been in government for 16 of the last 20 years. Whatever it has been doing in office, it hasn’t been nearly enough. And there’s nothing in the present coalition agreement that will change that. Indeed, throughout Europe, mainstream left parties such as the SPD have stuck to their economically centrist programmes and are facing electoral meltdown as a result.

The growing popular anger at the status quo is being channeled almost exclusively into the AfD, which presents itself as the alternative to the political mainstream. Rather than blame the massive redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top, however, the AfD points the finger at the weakest in society: immigrants and refugees.

So how can the SPD turn things around by the next federal election in 2021? 

The party leadership has promised a complete programme of political renewal, as it does after every disappointing result. But even if this promise were kept this time, how credible is political renewal within a government that stands for more of the same? The SPD would be given the finance ministry, but would be wedded to an austerity policy of no new public debt, and no increased tax rises on the rich. 

SPD members are repeatedly exhorted to separate questions of programmatic renewal from the debate about who leads the party. But these questions are fundamentally linked. The SPD’s problem is not its failure to make left-wing promises, but the failure of its leaders to actually keep them, once in office.

The clear counter-example for genuine political renewal and credibility is, of course, Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. In spite of all dire warnings that a left-wing programme was a sure-fire vote-loser, Labour’s massively expanded membership – and later electorate – responded with an unprecedented and unforeseen enthusiasm. 

A radical democratic change on the lines of Labour would save the SPD party from oblivion, and save Germany from an ascendent AfD. But it would come at the cost of the careers of the SPD leadership. Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, they are fighting it tooth and nail.

Having promised an “especially fair” debate, the conflict over the GroKo has suddenly surged to become Germany’s Momentum moment - and the SPD leadership is doing everything it can to quash the debate. Party communications and so-called “dialogue events” pump out a pro-GroKo line. The ballots sent out this week came accompanied by an authoritative three-page letter on why members should vote for the grand coalition.

Whether such desperate measures have worked or not will be revealed when the voting result is announced on 4 March 2018. Online, sentiment is overwhelmingly against the GroKo. But many SPD members (average age is 60) are not online, and are thought to be more conservative.

Whatever the outcome, the debate isn’t going away. If members can decide on a grand coalition, why not on the leadership itself? A direct election for the leadership would democratically reconnect the SPD with its grassroots.

Unless the growth in inequality is turned around, a fundamental reboot of the SPD is ultimately inevitable. Another grand coalition, however, will postpone this process even further. And what will be left of the SPD by then?

Steve Hudson is a Momentum activist and a member of both Labour and the SPD. He lives in Germany, where he chairs the NoGroKo eV campaign group.