Last night I was in the audience for BBC Question Time. I follow it every week on TV and join in the argument on Twitter. I thought it would be interesting for people to know how it actually works so here is my experience.
The Application Form
Two weeks ago after watching Question Time on TV I saw that there would be a recording in Birmingham soon. Birmingham is a one hour drive from here and just about within the range that I can manage without getting too sick so I visited the website to apply to be in the audience. I have actually started to fill in the application form before but I did not complete it because it contained questions that I just could not come up with decent answers to and that nearly happened this time.
The form starts with the expected details of name, address and phone numbers. It also asks age, occupation, ethnic group and whether or not you have any disabilities – I assume that these details are required in order to ensure diversity in the audience. It asks the applicant to cite two issues in the news recently that you might want to ask questions about were you to be on the programme, which I suppose proves that you are engaged with the news and would take part in the debate, not just stay silent. The unexpected part for me is the questions about who you would vote for and any party membership, and if you support that party leader or not. More on this in a moment. The question that nearly prevented me from applying was “What is your opinion of the situation in Afghanistan?” because it is complex and I am conflicted on the issue. I turned to Twitter, however, and after a helpful conversation I managed to tweet an opinion so I copied that into the form and sent it off.
The Phone Call
I heard nothing more for a couple of weeks but then yesterday morning I recieved a phone call from the Audience Producer for the programme, Alison. She asked me if I would be able to attend the recording that evening and of course I agreed. She told me who the panel would be (Grant Shapps MP, Caroline Flint MP, Simon Hughes MP, poet Benjamin Zephaniah and columnist Cristina Odone) and then wanted to know what question I would ask if I got the chance. She wanted me to come up with two; one to be sent in by email immediately and one to be written out on a card on arrival, preferably after hearing the day’s news. I said that my first question would be something related to David Cameron’s conference speech on the previous day where he had said of his son “Today, more people would see the boy and not the wheelchair” while I believed that today most people would see a scrounger and not a person. I couldn’t phrase the question there and then but Alison was happy with the concept and asked me to email it in after our phone call.
My second question she wasn’t quite so happy with. I told her that I wanted to ask about the investigation that is being launched into a supposed left-wing bias of BBC news reporting as I believe there is a right-wing bias. She didn’t completely object to the question, but she immediately defended the BBC. She said of Question Time: “I know who goes into the audience, I know how left wing or right wing it is.” It seems that the audience is selected specifically to represent a range of views across the political spectrum, hence the questions about political affiliation and views on Afghanistan. To be fair to her, I think that she probably does ensure a quite balanced audience but my impression of BBC news and current affairs is that the balance of panellists and experts interviewed are generally biased towards the right-wing even if the audience of Question Time are not. A bigger problem to me than the bias in selection of people who appear on the BBC is their choice of what stories to cover or not to cover, and the links between people like Lord Patten and the Conservative Party such as his £400,000 donation as well as links to private healthcare firms alongside the complete absence of reporting on the outsourcing / privatisation of most of the NHS.
Moving on, Alison next wanted to speak to my wife since she would be accompanying me. My wife didn’t particularly want to be in the audience but would have to go with me as my carer and to push my wheelchair but despite me pointing this out she wanted to speak to her anyway to ask the same questions that she had asked me.
The question that she suggested was about the privatisation of The Blood Service and the fact that many blood donors will not donate to a private blood service. To both of our surprise this question was vetoed because the story has not appeared in mainstream news, only on blogs and social networks. While I can see the reasons for wanting stories that everyone in the audience and panel have heard about, this does go some way to explaining why some topics never come up on Question Time or other debate shows. Unable to think of anything else, my wife said that she would email a question in later.
After the phone call ended I realised that my wife really wanted to go to her previously planned event that evening and so I looked for someone else to accompany me instead. (I couldn’t go alone as I can’t self-propel my wheelchair.) In the end I phoned my mum who it turned out was actually quite excited about being in the audience and so I called Alison back and asked her to change the details and call my mum to ask her questions.
The Event Itself
I drove my mum and I up to Birmingham. We arrived an hour earlier than we were supposed to as we both had to plan around meals, medication and insulin injections. We were too early to go in to the Question Time waiting area so we sat in the bar for a while. (This was in the MAC, Midlands Arts Centre.) When we walked over to the waiting area just after six the queue was already out the door! We joined the back of the queue and I spent a while trying to stop my mum from pushing my wheelchair so close to the person in front that I was kicking them. (They were friendly and laughed about it.) We got to the security staff with the metal detector but were just waved through. (Note to self: hide any contraband in my wheelchair.) After a guard looked in our bags we gave our names at the desk and were given wristbands to show we were audience members and question cards to write our second question out on. The notes asked that our questions be short, twenty to thirty words, and provocative. We sat in a fairly crowded cafe area and wrote out our questions. (In my case, dictated the question.)
A few minutes later David Dimbleby appeared in the room and gave us a short talk about how the recording would work. He explained that he wanted a lively debate, and he wanted the audience to join in, argue back and debate with each other as well as the panel. He told us that the questions would be selected before the recording and the people who would ask the questions would be told and given a copy of their question to read out. After that is was about another twenty minutes before we actually went into the area where the recording would take place. Being in a wheelchair I was taken through separately and placed at the front since the rest of the seats involved steps. I was slightly taken aback on the way through the door as one of the crew darted forward waving scissors at my wrist to cut off the wristband.
Before the recording took place we had a warm-up debate. Since the panel were not there yet the floor manager invited five volunteers down from the audience to form a panel. We debated about obesity and diabetes while the crew fitted microphones, adjusted cameras and checked seating positions did not block anything. The debate was interrupted a few times as various changes were made. It was clear that the floor manager did not intend the debate to be serious, interrupting with jokes including a running gag about national service and points given out at random to the panel however the audience and some panel members had quite a serious and interesting debate anyway and I made a couple of points myself.
Towards the end of this debate the Audience Producer came in with the questions which had been selected by Dimbleby. She stood at the front and announced each name, asking them to stand so that the crew could find them. They were then taken outside for a couple of minutes to be given their question cards while we continued our debate a little longer.
At this point Dimbleby made his appearance. He stood at the front for a couple of minutes and chatted with the audience. Then he called in and introduced us to each member of the panel in turn. Dimbleby called on the audience to applaud points they agreed with, and for “Tories to support Tories, LibDems to support…” before being cut off by a shout of “Tories!” from the woman behind me. He explained that we were a varied audience and asked any UKIP members to raise their hands just to prove they were there. (There were two.)
The first question actually took place before the recording started and we spent a few minutes on that. Then the recording started properly and the programme was, surprisingly, exactly as you see it on the TV. The whole sixty minutes is recorded in one go and apart from selection of the camera angle is unedited. We spent a long time on a discussion of housing benefit and welfare and I spent most of that segment with my hand up to ask a question but sadly Dimbleby never picked me. He did seem to be directing the crew to position microphones near the people picked to speak through winks and nods which was a little bizarre.
When the programme finished Dimbleby asked us to remain seated for a minute while the recording was checked in case it had failed and any part needed to be rerecorded however the floor manager directed me to leave ahead of everyone else so that I didn’t get trampled. We headed over to the bar to get me a coffee and stretch and then I drove us home.
I arrived back home just after eleven and I watched the rest of the show as it was broadcast while trying to answer the thirty-five twitter mentions from people who had seen me on TV!
And that was my Question Time experience.
Watch Question Time – Birmingham 11/10/2012 [iPlayer]