"The need to speak, even if one has nothing to say, becomes more pressing when one has nothing to say, just as the will to live becomes more urgent when life has lost its meaning."
Jean Baudrillard, The Ecstasy of Communication
“The more he identifies with the dominant images of need, the less he understands his own life and his own desires. The spectacle’s estrangement from the acting subject is expressed by the fact that the individual’s gestures are no longer his own; they are the gestures of someone else who represents them to him.”
Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle
I’m not sure when I stopped watching Question Time. Probably when Nigel Farage first raised his ugly head. Or maybe it was when parenthood came a-calling, and a decent night's sleep became but a distant dream.
For there was a period when I, like anyone with a passing interest in 'mainstream politics', watched it as regularly as reading the paper. And in the past, it was often entertaining: Christopher Hitchens’ sole appearance alongside his brother Peter, par example. Or any time Will Self is on.
No longer. To watch it now is to invite a rage-induced migraine to accompany the acute sleep deprivation.
So I wasn’t watching last month when single mother – and Conservative voter – Michelle Dorrell challenged climate change secretary Amber Rudd on the (then-planned) tax credit cuts, her impassioned outburst grating against the ‘all in it together’ austerity mantra. The clip was widely disseminated through the media. Discord on the Government backbenches festered, rebellion in the House of Lords followed, and the Chancellor was made to change his tune.
Encapsulated in this moment the supposedly vital contribution the programme makes to the public life of Britain: showing first-hand the social impact of Government policy, shaping the national political narrative and holding our political leaders to account.
This is the rarity, the bogus exception; most of the time it is tedium squared. All too often it is simply a showcase of bickering and partisan point-scoring, another opportunity for our political elite to give their vocal chords an extra workout. Worse: it enhances the democratic deficit.
Defenders of Question Time refer to it as a ‘national institution’ – if by ‘national institution’ they mean an increasingly irrelevant televisual dinosaur that is fossilising before our very eyes.
In its present incarnation, with David Dimbleby in the chair, it has been unchanged for over twenty years. Over twenty years of this shit. Thirty seven if you include the tenure of predecessors Sir Robin Day and Peter Sissons. The format is so ingrained Dimbleby virtually snoozes through it – much like most viewers of his vintage.
One thing that has changed over this time is the diminution of political discourse, and the decline of meaningful political engagement. Some of the blame for the charge that 'politicians are all the same' has to be lain at Question Times’ door. (Ditto the Paxman-Humphrys detente for how we engage with public servants.) For rather than offering a publicly-accessible forum to scrutinise and interrogate Parliamentary debate, it simply serves to highlight the hermetic nature of Westminster politics.
Despite its roving remit, it is incapable of escaping this obsessive centrism. Panels are MP-dominated, and therefore overwhelmingly male, pale and stale. Not to mention dull. There are too few women panellists. Minority voices or representatives of the BAME community from outside Westminster are all but absent - just 9% of panellists according to new research by David Lammy MP. Commentariat panellists respectfully genuflect to the rules of debate. Discussion lurches from neoliberal entreaties to party-line hyperbole, from scaremongering hysteria to occasional swivel-eyed insanity (take a bow Mr Farage). Hardly surprising, but hugely problematic.
Last week’s episode being a case in point: a WASPish, hawkish panel – bar the anachronistic Ken Livingstone and doveish Peter Wishart of the SNP – advocating the obliteration-by-ordnance of Daesh in Syria. (Our political class advocating the use of heavy duty weaponry to defeat terrorist ideology: haven't we been here before?)
At its close, the debate descended into a fratricidal spat between Livingstone and the former Labour party member and ‘comedian’ Matt Horne. (Until I heard Mr Horne’s representations, I’d never understood why people use the term ‘Red Tory’. Now I do.)
Tonight's will be equally paradigmatic, now the first jets have gone in: a panel of serious faces, furrowed brows, voices thick with vestigial regret, pleas of absolution from the morally just. In time there will be remorse and recrimination; but no resolution of the disconnect between Parliament's decision to extend the theatre of war and the absence of any mandate from the electorate. This is what makes politicians feel important. it is also what makes people angry. That coupled with the congenital inability of politicians to express contrition when things go wrong.
Viewers have a love-hate relationship with Question Time. We watch it because we love to hate it. We despise the panel, and we despise the audience. We view with contempt the exchanges of our ruling class; we mock the unpolished interjections of the audience. We hope for a kernel of authenticity, a decisive moment to cut through the bullshit. We wait in vain.
Some members of the audience cannot resist the opportunity to 'have a go' at those they perceive to be distanced and disconnected from their daily lives. (See Margaret Beckett being jeered for calling her expenses ‘a right’.) The audience shout because they feel ignored or under-represented by our political system; because they shout, they are isolated, mocked or ignored. Cynicism cycles in perpetuity.
Maybe it's a technical issue, not a political one: because it is filmed late in the day and broadcast even later, by that time participants and viewers are equally irritable. Perhaps the seats in the auditorium are especially uncomfortable. For those of us sprawled at home on our sofas, whatever our political persuasion it affords us the opportunity to give vent to our spleen. If the producers invited the Teletubbies onto the panel, we’d still be shouting ‘LYING CUNTS’, or 'ANSWER THE FUCKING QUESTION' at them. Though we may get more sense out of them than some junior ministers.
And now we have social media to complete the circle. We tweet our ire and pour scorn on anyone who says anything we disagree with. Twitter perpetuates discordant discourse, refuses the singular narrative. The hashtag #bbcqt offers a cloak of empowerment while our democracy declines. If we're going to do this on twitter, producers might as well give the audience rotting vegetables to throw.
The modern debate – formalised during the Age of Enlightenment – can be traced back to the democratic societies of ancient Greece, and the dialectics of the Socratic method. Question Time is as far the Socratic method as stone tablets are from iPads. Instead of deepening understanding and revealing paradoxical thought, it simply engenders polarisation and entrenchment, favours ignorance over rationality, and stimulates apathy towards politics - possibly what Baudrillard had in mind when he said "The world is not dialectical - it is sworn to extremes, not to equilibrium, sworn to radical antagonism, not to reconciliation or synthesis."
As an indicator of how our supposedly civilised, secular society is predicated upon political manoeuvring, prejudice and populist short-termism, Question Time is peerless. At a time when only two- thirds of those eligible to vote bother to do so – and a significant number are being excluded from the electoral register – Question Time and its sister BBC programmes The Andrew Marr Show, The Daily Politics and This Week, distract from the democratic deficit at the centre of our democracy with televisual spectacle: how the ruling elite live, work and talk to each other.
It’s highly unlikely that the BBC will axe Question Time. But given the cuts the Corporation is facing, this might just be the right time to consider it. Culture secretary John Whittingdale's review may force the BBC's hand.
Better to pre-empt him with a significant overhaul of the format to dispose of this echo-chamber of Westminster’s Punch-and-Judy politics. In its place a programme which doesn’t provoke its viewers to assume polarised ideologies, but deploys greater scientific rigour to educate and inform, bring more BAME reps and young people into the audience and onto the panel, and give greater focus to long-term issues (climate change, global migration, constitutional reform, the future of work, and so on), instead of the nondescript parataxis demanded by the narrative of neoliberalism.
I'm not completely naive: this will in no way diminish its simulation of meaningful political discussion. But it may encourage people to re-engage with visible representations of national political discourse. As a mere 2.7 million people watch it regularly – out of a possible viewing public of 25 million - Question Time’s public service remit is at present entirely fraudulent.
When many in this country think about politics - and a great number don't - they picture well-educated, usually wealthy and very often white men (sometimes women) dissimulating under questioning to evade public scrutiny. That is Question Time in a nutshell. Where political disenfranchisement is concerned, the programme is not part of the solution but part of the problem. It’s time for Dimbleby and co to go.