BBC's Question Time continues its 34-year run tonight, with an episode from Dover.
My enthusiasm for the show was rekindled a couple of years ago when it also became a regular Twitter event. The two-screen phenomenon has meant ordinary punters being able to add their two shekels' worth immediately - in return for 140 characters' worth of praise or obloquy - rather than just rage alone at those moments when the contributions tip over from robust and controversial into idiotic and pompous.
However, an especially irritating (post-broadcast) aspect of the programme these days goes mostly unchallenged. Some panelists seem to treat any approval they might have received from the audience as instilling them with a certain political or moral legitimacy. Which they then bang on about on their blog or in their column as if there could be no further possible challenge to their view of the world. All because they got clapped the previous Thursday in a town hall with some TV cameras in it.
These insistences usual go along the lines of "opinion X is ignored by [person or organisation] Y but when I expressed it on Question Time last week...", followed by a description of how rapturous the audience response was because the truth, as expressed by our intrepid columnist or celebrity, had finally been spoken. It's like a child in the park asking their parents if they saw that special handstand they just did and how impressed all the big boys and girls were.
Such self-regard is premised on the belief that Question Time audiences are somehow an accurate cross-section of the Great British Public - when what they in fact are is a cross-section of that part of the Great British Public that thinks turning up to express support for one's existing views should be not just the beginning but also the end of the democratic process, because of the apparently unquestionable correctness of what one thinks. So the Question Time studio is an echo chamber, with the audience merely a reflection of the panel. Just without the time, inclination or luck to have become a politician or professional rent-a-gob themselves.
To claim them as some sort of frustrated, silenced majority for your cause is like divining significance from me shouting excitedly at Loftus Road when QPR score. It satisfies my demand for an event I believe is all too rare but the fans opposite will feel quite differently about it. Not to mention the absent thousands who will also find no joy in the scoreline. And millions of others still who could not give a damn either way. If Harry Redknapp claimed in the post-match interview that all the QPR fans roaring with delight when QPR scored proves how popular QPR is throughout the land, he'd be thought of as delusional. Yet similar claims from Question Time guests abound: supporters in the studio of what I say cheered when I said something so the whole country must really like what I say. I'm sure a warm round of applause from a Question Time audience, re-(tw)heated in the days that follow, must be very reassuring as the modern world refuses to match your model for it. But real politics, this is not.
To pick two subjects which seem to bring out the worst in both #BBCQT panels and audiences: when a guest tries to persuade an audience of socially-housed single parents of the virtues of the latest welfare reform, then they will be able to write about it as some sort of heroic venture; when they attempt to justify their views on the Middle East conflict to an audience of Israelis and Palestinians, then they will be able to claim some sort of significant contribution to a debate.
And when they start understanding that the programme is entertainment and not factual, then they will be able to better appreciate what role it has as a political weather-vane. None.
07 March 2013
06 March 2013
04 March 2013
Let's begin by differentiating 'readers' from 'Readers'. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a Guardian Reader, even though I used to read the Guardian (every day for over a decade). Nor am I a Daily Mail Reader, even on the rare occasions when I happen to read the Daily Mail. Of all the things I get up to of a day or a week, where I get my news from is one of the most irrelevant in defining who I am. You might call me a reader of The Times, as that is my current daily download, but I am not a Times Reader. Especially as, in our digital-leisure age, it's one of dozens, if not hundreds, of information and entertainment outlets covering my screen hour after hour.
For others, it is different. When one Guardian Reader wrote of raising her daughter as another Guardian Reader, in the same way others enforce a religious upbringing, it was with tongue lightly caressing the inside of her cheek, rather than firmly emplaced so. To a certain breed of self-righteous pomposity-monger, their choice of newspaper is a badge of honour, worn to demand respect from those whom they deem to be less wise in their selections. Take this, from the Guardian's letters page in 2011:
Unlike readers of the Tory-owned press, we take the Guardian for opinions with which we can agree or disagree and make up our own minds based on facts provided elsewhere...
In 31 words, he manages to sum-up those who self-describe as Readers of certain newspapers: defining yourself against others whom you regard as the ignorant masses, just not as clever or ethical as you because of what they read. Such attitudes prevail on social media where even the mildest questioning of some ideas or campaigns gets you accused of being a mere conduit through which Rupert Murdoch or Paul Dacre channel their every nefarious desire.
Or look at these two quotes from the writer of a blog which charts the hypocrisies, exaggerations and lies of the tabloid press in general, and the Daily Mail in particular:
"Freedom in this sense is merely the freedom for anyone to set up their own press as an outlet for their own biased and perhaps blinkered view of the world".
"There are elements of our society that are fearful,vulnerable and simply not intelligent enough to know when they are being lied to".
In highlighting such illiberal and elitist views, I am not seeking to defend the Fleet Street titles being attacked. I also have no respect for them nor any truck with their politics or views. But here's an exclusive especially for the Readers of supposedly more high-minded sources: your papers are rubbish as well. They also lie, exaggerate, print slanted copy, and promote their owners' and editors' biases. Sure, they may do it over matters of greater importance than their Murdochian, Northcliffe and Desmondite counterparts. But that arguably makes it even worse.
If you think the press is too influential in our lives and want to make it less so, then fine. Lead the way. Stop treating The Guardian and The Independent and New Statesman as if they were the first three books of a Third Testament. You want people to pay less attention to the likes of Richard Littlejohn and Melanie Phillips? Great. Then set an example. Stop taking every word the likes of Polly Toynbee and John Pilger write as some sort of infallible truth.
And in the meantime, stop referring to yourselves as "unlike readers of the Tory-owned press". Because you are not unlike them at all.