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.