BBC 'hired Nottingham general election debate audience and told them not to heckle'

Presenter Mishal Husain with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer during their BBC Head-to-head debate in Nottingham.
-Credit: (Image: Jeff Overs/BBC/PA Wire)

The BBC spent more than £30,000 of licence fee payers' money hiring audience members for the TV general election debate between Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer in Nottingham, it has been reported. The Express claims that the debate - held at Nottingham Trent University last night (Wednesday, June 26) - involved an audience completely made up of paid-for audience members provided by a marketing company.

A total of 150 people were each paid £150 "disturbance money" and £30 towards their expenses, meaning at least £27,000 of licence payers' money was used. There were also up to 20 more people in reserve and while they didn't make it on screen, they were compensated too, meaning up to a further £3,600 was spent.

This fee is on top of what the BBC pays their third-party polling company Savanta. Savanta then outsourced the job to another market research company called Roots. A source who was in the debate audience told the Express how they were approached. They said they have previously been paid to work on projects for Roots so they were on the company mailing list.

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They said: "I got an email asking if I would be interested and I said yes. "I think they wanted people who lived in the Midlands, basically. They got back to me and asked me lots and lots and lots of questions. I'd had to fill in a questionnaire before they spoke to me."

The source said they were told they were booked after answering questions and having a screening over the phone. "They warned me that I was being booked I might not actually get him to the venue," they said.

"So, when we arrived, quite a few people were given wristbands, and they were told that that meant that there was a chance that they will not be attending live. I think it's the same with a lot of these things that they oversubscribe because they know that they're going to get dropouts."

Asked how many people in the audience were paid, they said: "Everybody, every single person in the audience was paid either by Roots or Savanta." They said, this included the people who did not make actually appear on air.

"They were getting exactly the same money. They could remain in the holding area and continue to have food and drink or they could just go home. It was entirely up to up to them. But we were all treated absolutely equally whether we whether we got into the venue or not," they said.

Once inside phones and handbags were taken away from the audience. The source said they were told "in no uncertain terms" not to heckle. "We were allowed to clap, we were allowed to mutter but we were not allowed to heckle," they said.

"The fact that they paid this money was to make sure that we turned up. They're making it worth your while. If you're not being paid anything and you get a better offer you're gonna take it but by paying us that money, then we are going to commit. So I completely understood why we were being paid. I actually thought that was a good way of doing it."

A BBC spokesman said: "The Prime Ministerial debate had an equal number of people who intend to vote Conservative and Labour, as well as some undecided voters. The audiences for our debates – between Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer last night and for the seven-party debate earlier in the campaign – were selected by our third-party supplier Savanta to reflect a broad range of political perspectives."

The spokesman pointed out it is standard for these types of debates to offer audience members a flat disturbance fee to cover travel costs and their time.

Tickets for BBC programmes are available to apply for online and currently viewers in Scotland can fill out an online form to be part of the Debate Night audience. The Express contacted Roots about the recruitment process but we were told they "aren't allowed" to give out information on this. Savanta has also been contacted for comment.