People who know me would likely say I am rarely lost for words, but after experiencing being a member of the audience for one of our supposed great institutions – BBC Question Time – I was exactly that.
Let me be frank , to believe that the BBC as a media institution in the current climate wouldn’t hold any sort of political bias other than pandering to the right would be incredibly naïve, but even myself, a battle hardened activist, was not quite prepared for the level of open hostility that was shown to the left, and more specifically the Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott.
Even so, I accepted the invitation to join the audience, and given my history (and pretty sure that the BBC would have vetted people beforehand) hoped that I had been asked to attend so there indeed would be some sort of constructive, balanced debate. My willingness to give the benefit of the doubt was soon proven to be unfounded and was indeed short lived.
It was clear that as I entered the Roundhouse – the 19th Century railway building that the episode was filmed in, that the audience selected was indeed not a true reflection of the diversity that makes up the city of Derby, and as I mingled and struck up conversations, it soon became apparent that the left were outnumbered by at least 3:1.
Sparks inevitably flew, and I was quickly engaged in a heated discussion with a businessman wearing a pinstripe suit which was a clear ode to his glory days in Thatcher’s Britain about political correctness having gone mad.
This would have been an intended consequence from the producers, and the tension in the room was already palpable. The only experience I could use as a comparison is being at the count on polling day.
What came next set the tone and terms of the debate and was as inappropriate as it was disturbing. New presenter Fiona Bruce came out to address the audience. Hailed for her performance from the week before by fans, and after happily approving of the sycophantic praise that she was being adorned with from some quarters, Bruce proceeded to warm up the crowd. I am aware that this was indeed a tradition with former host David Dimbleby, and audience members were encouraged to participate as vocally and enthusiastically as possible. Nothing wrong with that, an exercise in democracy it would seem.
However, it was at this moment in time that the real hostility towards Diane Abbott became evident. Each panellist was given a brief bio; Rory Stewart – a member of the Government, Kirsty Blackman – SNP and a remainer, Isabel Oakeshott – ardent Brexiteer and Anand Menon – academic expert on the EU.
When Fiona Bruce introduced Diane Abbott, Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary, she took it upon herself to instigate a roast. Comments such as “let her know what you really think” and “some may think she is in the shadow cabinet because of her very close relationships with Corbyn, nudge nudge, wink wink” were made. This indeed had the desired effect, and the carefully selected audience guffawed in delight as they had now been given licence to air their bigoted views in public. The former yuppy in the pinstripe commented “I’m going to ask her to do a sum, but she will just claim its discrimination I’m sure.”
This level of deliberate antagonism from the BBC is a disgrace, and the institution now desperately needs to be held to account.
Now these terms were set, the now legitimised hostility became all too clear. A brief practice session took place, where the most reactionary members of the audience were identified so that they could be returned to during the show. Diane was given the cold shoulder as the other panellists chatted together chummily, and she was spoken over as if she did not exist.
During the debate, the Shadow Home Secretary was interrupted by Fiona Bruce more times in three minutes that the others were in twenty. Audience members barracked and abused her, questioned her legitimacy and jeered, empowered by the licence they felt they had been granted by the BBC to do so. Sympathisers such as myself were simply ignored.
At one-point Fiona Bruce and Isabel Oakeshott ganged up like playground bullies to ridicule Diane Abbott over Labour’s polling, both making statements later proven to be false.
BBC’s Question time is portrayed as a truly democratic spectacle, where the public can engage members of the Government and Opposition, as well as leaders of their field. In reality, it is far from it. It is a farcical stage-managed state propaganda tool in which the BBC use and legitimise institutional racism, misogyny and bigotry to stoke up reactionary sentiment amongst the general population.
At the very least the BBC needs to be reformed and we must build a new media. This cannot be done soon enough.