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Question Time Needs to Change

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Watching Question Time is like witnessing a formerly smart child start to shove crayons up its nose. For something that was once intelligent, it scarcely resembles its past self. Rather than it being a show for serious debate, it has become theatre, designed to get cheap laughs and high viewing figures.

This isn't to say that these kind of programmes shouldn't be funny. This Week, which comes on straight after Question Time, is frequently ridiculous. Yet Andrew Neil rounds on politicians in a way David Dimbleby no longer does. Then again, This Week doesn't have an audience baying for the blood of Daily Mail readers, perhaps making Neil's job significantly easier.

The crux of the problem with Question Time is its tendency to invite modish comedians or generally thick TV folk on the show, to answer questions with populist twaddle. This is designed to placate a loud yet clearly unthinking audience, who frequently hold such absurd positions with unbelievable self certainty that they are reminiscent of flat earthers.

Last night's inclusion of Russell Brand is symptomatic of this tendency to opt for anti-intellectualism over serious political discussion. In fact, this was the first time I had actually been concerned at the start of an episode. What could someone slumped over their chair, grinning inanely as he took in his surroundings, possibly contribute to pressing issues such as housing or the war in Syria?

Judging from his answers, not a lot. With a spiel on orgies, a de rigueur attack on bankers, and labelling everyone as his "mate," it was patently clear that his purpose was to get viewers. This might bring short term benefits, but in reality the show is becoming a laughing stock.

This is the logical outcome when you ask hip media figures on to pontificate about some popular cause they are clinging to, simply so they can feel good about themselves. Sadly, this state of affairs has existed for a while. One of the first times I watched the programme, June Sarpong (remember her?) was on the panel, using her specialist knowledge gained from years of hosting a below average pop show on T4 to provide smart, nuanced insights into contemporary political issues. Except that didn't actually happen.

Then, years later, Will Young got to have a go as a panel member, because he liked the show. Well that might have been nice for him. But surely there should be more stringent requirements to be the panel's fifth member than being a vaguely famous person who might like Question Time?

There is a serious point to be made here, which is that this flippant approach to serious issues means nothing is learned through watching the programme. The jokiness of the whole thing means that people frequently escape serious questioning over holding barmy opinions. Plus, the artificial squabbling seems to indicate a much wider gulf between UK political parties than there actually is.

Worse still, there is a genuine loathing of anyone who dares to question conventional wisdom. The boorishness of the audience increasingly resembles a football crowd, impervious to reason and seeking the false comforts of holding a popular opinion. The result is that politicians in particular modify their answers to appear in touch, as Boris Johnson did last night when tried to side with Russell Brand.

This tendency to choose guests who will give the audience laughs over facts has led to intelligent, sentient beings, with important things to say, choosing to avoid going on the show. Janet Daley was bang on in 2012 when she blasted the audience bias, the reduction of debate to a sound-bite level, and the timidity of the career conscious politicians they invite on.

It is this approach which has landed the show in its current quagmire. This graph shows just how in thrall to comedians it has become, and sadly how people with genuine expertise are generally omitted. If Question Time really is to recover its form, it needs to forget about trying to be cool and actually get on with the task of grilling politicians.

I am not a Question Time hater. I was an audience member once, and it was a worthwhile experience. The BBC made me an alright cup of tea, the questions were good and I liked seeing my face on TV. But if it is genuinely to remain something worth going to and watching, it needs to shun the likes of Russell Brand and Marcus Brigstocke. It would also be nice if the audience was made to shut up once in a while.

Around the Web

BBC One - Question Time

Question Time (TV series) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Question Time - UK Parliament

BBC Question Time (bbcquestiontime) on Twitter

Question Time (TV Series 1979– ) - IMDb

BBC Question Time: live blog

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Russell Brand and Boris Johnson on Question Time: who has the edge?