BBC to vet Question Time audience after call for unvaccinated to appear

·4-min read

The BBC is to use disinformation specialists to vet potential Question Time audience members after the programme called for unvaccinated members of the public to take part.

Next week’s episode of the current affairs discussion show will feature unvaccinated individuals in the audience after an appeal from the presenter, Fiona Bruce, broadcast earlier this month.

Question Time’s decision to seek out vaccine refuseniks follows concern at the BBC that the show has failed to represent the views of the 10% of the adult British population who have not had a jab.

But one of the main social media channels used to organise an attempt by anti-vaxx activists to storm the offices of Britain’s medical regulator has also been used to encourage people to apply to the BBC programme, according to now deleted messages.

“Applied,” said one user on a popular anti-vaccine activist Telegram channel, who posted a reply they had received from the BBC confirming that their application to appear in the audience had been received. Others on the channel, used to organise anti-lockdown campaigns and oppose vaccines, said they would apply.

Related: Vaccine refusers have been asked on to Question Time. Is this a disaster waiting to happen?

Since Question Time returned with live audiences last year it has asked about people’s vaccination status when they apply online to go in the audience. This appears to have put off those who have declined to be injected from applying to go on the show – meaning there have rarely been any questions from people who are unvaccinated.

“There are still substantial numbers of the British public who are not vaccinated, especially in particular areas and communities,” said a BBC spokesperson. “We think this is an interesting part of the debate which is worthy of discussion. Question Time always strives to discuss each side of every argument. This is about listening to, and understanding, our audience members. The BBC has always made the scientific consensus on vaccination very clear.”

The issue facing the BBC is how to find “ordinary” unvaccinated members of the public, rather than obsessive anti-vaxx activists, and whether it is possible to distinguish between the two groups. The BBC also runs the risk of broadcasting dangerous medical disinformation to millions of viewers.

In an attempt to weed out the more obsessive campaigners, the BBC has decided to employ its in-house disinformation specialists to help with vetting potential audience members, although it is unclear what criteria will be used.

Related: Concern for UK security as anti-vaxxer groups evolve towards US-style militias

Next week’s episode is being filmed at a location in London, which has some of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, and medical experts will sit on the panel to answer questions about vaccine take-up. Rather than dedicate an entire programme to the topic of vaccination, as Question Time has done in the past on certain key topics, discussions of vaccines will be dealt with as part of a wider range of issues.

Asked about the health concerns of inviting unvaccinated individuals into the audience at a time when there are still 100,000 new confirmed Covid cases every day, a BBC spokesperson said they would still have to show evidence of a recent negative test to gain access.

The decision to seek out the unvaccinated comes amid ongoing debate about what BBC impartiality really means – and whether every viewpoint should be given a hearing on the public broadcaster. This month the BBC’s editorial standards chief, David Jordan, attempted to define which views should be given airtime on the BBC during a parliamentary hearing, saying he opposed “cancel culture” and remained “committed to ensuring that viewpoints are heard from all different sorts of perspectives”.

Jordan said everyone should expect their views to be appropriately represented by the national broadcaster – even if they believed the Earth is flat. “It’s critical to the BBC that we represent all points of view and give them due weight. Flat-Earthers are not going to get as much space as people who believe the Earth is round, but very occasionally it might be appropriate to interview a flat-Earther. And if a lot of people believed in flat Earth we’d need to address it more.”

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