The Question Time Leaders Debate: A View From The Audience

I’ve applied to be in the audience of a few editions of Question Time and had failed to even get a sniff of a reply. It has long been said that the audiences are hand picked, and a previous edition in Edinburgh a few weeks ago appeared to go some way towards reinforcing those suspicions. Former Airdrie Conservative candidate Eric Holford (now Conservative councillor for Clydesdale East) was front and centre with the first question of the night- and he wasn’t the only Tory councillor in what is supposedly a carefully vetted audience. Fast forward a few weeks and it was the foodbank nurse who had amazingly been invited back by the BBC after failing to make her highly damaging (to herself) allegations about nurses in Scotland and their reliance on foodbanks.

I haven’t voted SNP for a number of years now and have voted for independent or Green candidates since then, and applied as an “undecided ex-SNP voter”. The website said that successful applicants would be contact on the Monday or Tuesday prior to filming and having received no such call assumed that I wasn’t needed. Saturday nights terror attack in London meant however that political campaigning was suspended for the day, and on Sunday I received a call asking if I could attend on Monday for a rescheduled debate. I could and completed the phone interview, where they seemed particularly interested in the fact I was an ex-SNP voter…

The filming took place on Monday evening at George Watson’s College in Edinburgh and on arrival I checked in and had a look round at the invited cross section of the electorate, which looked to me nothing like a cross section of the electorate and more like a gathering of business professionals and suits. My initial impressions were that this would be an overall hostile audience towards the SNP and on that regard I think I was correct. Sometimes you can look at an audience member, try to categorise them and then be pleasantly surprised when that happens, or smug when you get it bang on. Last nights audience had both of those qualities.

Before arriving you are asked to submit two questions by email and you get a chance to submit more topical ones on arrival. The production staff then sift through these and select a number of them to be used through the filming. These are the topics which are probably most relevant at the time of filming, and the reason for their introduction is twofold; they allow the programme to be structured so that a variety of topics are discussed, and they allow cameras to be prepared beforehand so that they know where the individual questioners will be sat and aren’t panning around looking for them. So when they say that the debate is set by the audience that is partially true; they select the questions they want the debate to be about. When the question “Your education policy is failing, will you resign?” was chosen that wasn’t done by accident.

If the audience was hostile then the presenter could be said to be even more so: Nick Robinson. Who could forget him being caught out manipulating a news report with his famous “He didn’t answer” line. Such was the furore over his behaviour, that there were calls for him to resign during a BBC Bias protest and an online petition gathered almost 20,000 signatures calling for him to be sacked. With David Dimbleby unavailable clearly a replacement had to be found, but Nick Robinson? Was Sarah Smith ill?

So, an at first glance hostile audience and a less than impartial presenter. What could possibly go right…

Tim Farron of the Lib-Dems was first up and gave a competent performance, managing to deflect previous criticism of his views on homosexuality and he was also able to point to his defiance of his party’s coalition deal which saw them u-turn on tuition fees. I did manage to criticise his stance on wanting a second Brexit referendum but not a Scottish referendum. To me it seems abundantly clear that as a minority party the Lib-Dems will not be in a position to deliver such a second EU referendum, and with both Labour and the Tories committed to Brexit, Scotland within the UK is on its way out of Europe. Given that Scotland indirectly endorsed the EU in 2014 when it was told a No vote would secure its place in Europe, and then directly endorsed it in 2016, surely the only for Scotland to be able to get into the EU was through independence? He didn’t answer directly but did state in response to the topic that his reason for rejecting a second Scottish referendum was that there was a full prospectus produced called Scotlands Future which the Scottish people rejected. He doesn’t seem bothered that the winning side produced no such prospectus and got their win on the back of a Daily Record front page vow. Had it been pasted on the side of a bus perhaps he’d think differently.

The second half of the debate got underway with the introduction of Nicola Sturgeon, and began with a question about security before moving on to the “more familiar ground” of independence, and then moving on to education. Nick Robinson helpfully explained that education was devolved, which means he must be fully aware that in Scotland this isn’t particularly relevant at this election, but they went ahead anyway, with the First Minister being asked if she was going to resign over her record. Robinson’s responses in this section were…odd. Imagine if someone phoned the BBC Scotland football phone in on a Saturday and began to talk at length about motor-sport; if it wasn’t relevant the host would no doubt cut it short, but not only did the BBC chose this as one of the prepared questions, Nick Robinson wouldn’t allow it to be moved on, at one point repeating three times in a row “we’ll stick with education”. At one point Nicola Sturgeon tried to correct an assertion that statistics in Scotland were worse than in England by stating that the two sets of figures were not directly comparable, only to be cut off by Nick Robinson saying “Yes, they are”. Assertion as fact.

It’s unfortunate you can’t argue the point with everyone. One well dressed gent attacked free education, stating that it’s not “free” we all pay for it through tax. I’m glad he realised that. For a minute I thought it was paid for by the legendary magic money tree I’ve heard so much about. What this cretin was attacking was the very foundation of free education in Scotland, and I wonder how long it will be before the Tory ideal of a maximum of a two child family for the poor is extended into other areas: we’ll educate your first two kids free, but you can pay for the rest…

Some of the questions were not only hostile (and by that I mean the wording, difficult questions are only fair), but were delivered with palpable venom; I could sense real hatred in them, none more so than the Welsh teacher who was the caricature elderly British nationalist brought to life. “Rubbish” was about the politest thing I could think of for her hate filled attack on Scotland, that there is no such nation and we were extinguished in 1707, before claiming she’s not allowed to vote on Scotland’s future. Perhaps she was shipped in from Brymawr.

Having earlier clarified that Scotland would not be offered a referendum until the end of the Brexit process, whenever that would be, a statement from a woman who said SNP voters were turning away from the SNP due to, ahem, independence set Nick Robinson off again pressing Sturgeon for a date. Having said it was due to Brexit he then began reeling off the years; 2019? 2021?

The question on tax, like the one on education, actually did more to illuminate the questioners lack of knowledge than anything else, and Nick Robinson was again called to assist, with the ‘You have more powers, but don’t want to use them’ line. Nicola Sturgeon was able to explain that this was the argument for ALL tax-powers to be devolved, not just some, but when you are playing to an audience of what appeared in the main to be a rather well off audience who think an extra penny on their tax is a penny too much, it’s a tough crowd.

Earlier I said that I tried to judge the audience. Sitting waiting to go in I heard two men chatting and one happened to mention SNP policy on Education, and as a touchy subject for them was sure he’d be vocal in attacking the SNP, I was surprised to hear him speak about how the UK immigration policy was actually damaging his chances. By and large though, it was from my vantage point, pretty Unionist heavy.

Overall if you thought there was bias from the BBC before the programme you wouldn’t go away with a different point of view. It’s clear that on the face of it the programme is portrayed as being fair, with a fair cross section of the electorate and a fair range of topics and a fair host. On closer scrutiny that doesn’t really hold up, and from a Scottish nationalist perspective, this is perhaps as good as it gets from the BBC.


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