Question Time will continue to be pointless unless Dimbleby's replacement holds the audience to account

Tom Peck

So the very worst job in broadcasting is up for grabs. After a quarter of a century watching public debate on politics descend like a meteorite heading to earth, and then, in the middle of the night on 23 June 2016, explode on impact with devastating effect, David Dimbleby has decided he has had enough of hosting the BBC’s Question Time.

The current frontrunners for the role are WWE’s Brock Lesnar, and the chief bouncer at a nightclub right next door to the British army barracks at Salisbury, with whom Dimbleby is rumoured to have brokered a straight job swap.

For reasons that have never been made clear, Question Time, the BBC’s weekly bold interpretation on the 15-minute hate from 1984, is often described as “essential viewing”.

It is hard to think of any statement that could be further from the truth – certainly not one that doesn’t contain the words “Brexit dividend”.

It is now almost 20 years since I, having just started studying A-level politics, successfully applied for a spot in the audience for the show’s recording at Maida Vale studios in London. I recall then my teacher saying he rarely bothered watching it, on the grounds that “no one ever says anything off message”.

Since then, its fundamental pointlessness has changed in new ways. I believe it was from about the coalition government of 2010 onwards that the most senior cabinet ministers stopped appearing on the show, for the understandable reason that the government was regularly divided along party lines.

That led to the entertaining spectacle of backbench MPs appearing, then having to defend government policies they either didn’t understand or possibly weren’t even aware of, often with some added spectacular freestyling of their own.

To that end, the show is regularly described as the general public’s chance to hold power to account, but whenever they do, it so rarely does power any actual harm.

In 2011, the recently elected MP for Witham, Priti Patel, made a truly remarkable appearance, in which hours after the highly dubious execution of Troy Davis in the US, Patel saw fit to explain why capital punishment should in fact be brought back.

Neither Private Eye editor Ian Hislop’s patient attempts to explain that wherever it is practised it leads to the execution of innocent people, nor the audience’s ongoing laughter, were enough to persuade her of its risks. “You need full burden of proof, you really do,” she repeated, over and over again, as only she can, determined not to acknowledge that life imprisonment already carries such a burden.

Despite having exposed herself as being apparently unable to grasp extremely simple concepts, it would only be a few years before Priti Patel was elevated to the cabinet and occasionally whispered of as a future Tory leader.

Still, if, once upon a time, politicians on Question Time ever were held to account by the public, now their role is merely to sit there and be screamed at. In the last couple of years, the relative misery of watching the show has been directly proportional to the level of audience involvement.

Presumably, some of its average two million viewers must imagine there is some purpose in hauling Remain MPs to Hartlepool or Doncaster or Barnsley, so they can have dozens of members of the public yell at them: “WE VOTED OUT! LET’S GET OUT NOW! DO IT NOW! DO IT NOW!”

In fact, it is arguably through the medium of the Question Time audience that a recent and quite horrifying fact of British political life can be most clearly seen. The EU referendum represents a fundamental shift, in that the public really did take back control from the politicians, who are now, two years later, sitting in Westminster, doing their bidding, trying to do what the public asked them to do, even though around 500 out of 650 of them consider it a terrible idea.

Whoever the new host is, perhaps they might wish to consider that, since June 2016, the power that needs to be held to account is in the audience. The BBC’s remit is to “educate, inform and entertain”. And yet by the end of most editions of Question Time these days, large swathes of the viewing public will simply turn away angry that Brexit isn’t just being done now, their education, information and entertainment coming via ignorant, disgruntled, late middle-aged men who know precisely zero of the issues they are so very, very angry about.

Holding power to account is certainly not the same as giving voice to ill-informed rage, the precise menace from which British political discourse so urgently needs saving.