Every Thursday evening, furious viewers mass on Twitter to denounce BBC One’s Question Time. Fiona Bruce, the host, is deemed “irritating” and “rude” and seemingly winds up just about everyone, while viewers across the spectrum cry “bias!” without anyone being able to agree on which side her supposed bias lies.
Described simultaneously as anti-Brexit, pro-Tory and a “left-wing mouthpiece”, Bruce has inadvertently made herself the figurehead for the culture war in broadcasting, where the right accuse the BBC of wokeism, and the left accuse the BBC of pandering to the establishment. On 23 June, Bruce asked the RMT union boss Mick Lynch whether driving up public sector wages would increase inflation, seemingly in the place of the treasury minister Rachel Maclean, who was on the panel.
It is possible that the BBC is nervous of the supposed left-wing bias that has been used as a justification for slashing the licence fee, and it may be that Bruce bears this in mind while presenting. However, audiences should know that impartiality in broadcasting doesn’t require all sides to be given equal weight. BBC editorial guidelines note that due impartiality does not require “absolute neutrality on every issue”, but that presenters must be inclusive and ensure that the “existence of a range of views is appropriately reflected”. Frustratingly, but perhaps reasonably, this means that not all parts of the spectrum will get their fair share of the allotted time. It is also worth remembering that the Question Time audience is deliberately selected to reflect the political demographics of the country. So, although Bruce is accused of selecting the “Tory plant’s questions”, she is simply statistically more likely to select someone who voted Conservative than Labour.
We must also bear in mind the unforgiving scrutiny of female journalists. One only has to scroll through mentions of Bruce’s name on Twitter to see blatant and more subtle sexism. I wonder if David Dimbleby or Andrew Neil had to deal with random men publicly discussing whether or not they’d have sex with them. Given she is described as “bossy” and “disrespectful”, it is possible that viewers are sensitive to her interjections because it feels much more jarring when it comes from a woman. Dimbleby certainly held his panellists to account (interrupting, scoffing and moving on quickly), but perhaps it felt more palatable and authoritative coming from an older, white man.
Ultimately Bruce’s treatment is more of a symptom of the public’s exasperation with the format used in Question Time. At its inception Question Time had more purpose. In 1979 it was an important means of democratic accountability. It gave small, fairly representative parts of the population access to politicians and the chance to ask them challenging questions. Everyone should have seen themselves, or their views, represented in some way and it represented a tangible link between the public and the establishment. Now, Question Time merely exists in the flood of news and endless fighting. Even established politicians have a reputation for repeating untruths or obfuscating. Media are no longer trusted to represent facts accurately. Breaking news and hot takes come from Twitter and Facebook, and everything has to be broken down into a thirty second soundbite. Moreover, Question Time is broadcast late on Thursday nights, too late for anyone to have a coherent thought; people are exhausted and have opted for a gin and tonic (or two).
Among the guests are journalists, activists and politicians, but also the odd inflammatory commentator, presumably to provide clips for social media. Notable previous guests include Billie Piper’s tension headache and ex-husband Laurence Fox in January 2020 and the controversial academic Jordan Peterson late last year. The audience then have just an hour to question this motley crew on the chaotic political landscape. Scotland breaking away from the Union? Ten minutes. Cost-of-living crisis? Five minutes. Repeatedly gaslit by our government? Two minutes, max. An audience member gets about twenty seconds before being cut off, otherwise there’s no way of fitting everything in. The only way to continue the conversation is through people shouting at each other on Twitter about it (which they do, with gusto).
In a world where anyone can put their questions and grievances to the establishment at any given time but no one trusts the answers, where female journalists elicit a disproportionate level of scrutiny and venom, and where the BBC can’t catch a break, one must wonder why anyone watches Question Time at all. To be honest, its future is, well, questionable.