Question Time – Democracy Lite?

Lincoln Green 

BBC Question Time

Copyright UK Parliaments photostream

I was an audience member in the BBC Question Time broadcast from Lincoln on 17 January 2013, when David Dimbleby chaired a panel which included Mary Beard (Professor of Classics, Cambridge University), Nigel Farage MEP (Leader of UKIP), Caroline Flint MP (Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change), Roland Rudd (Chairman, Business for New Europe) and Grant Shapps MP (Conservative Party Chairman).

Whilst the aim of the programme is to entertain and to provoke, attendance prompted thoughts about broader issues and about the underscoring attitudes which inform opinion and which programmes such as Question Time by their very nature fail to address.

Perhaps the most well debated issue was not actually broadcast but took place earlier, chaired by the floor manager to warm up the audience and to check the broadcasting systems.  The theme of responsibility for diet was discussed for almost an hour, raising issues such as personal responsibility, education for change, busy working parents and child care, and most pertinently the nature of the food industry.  Even with the luxury of extra time allotted only hints of the real issue were addressed – that the function of the food industry is to make a profit, and the easiest way to do this is to create something on which people will spend plenty of money (junk food) which is very cheap to produce and highly addictive (fat, sugar and salt). 

During the actual broadcast much less time was allotted to topical issues of particular interest to this audience:

Once again, however, a less serious interlude discussing horse meat found in beef burgers provoked thoughts about the food industry.    An audience member with experience of horse sales reported animals being sold for £10.  Much of Lincolnshire is an agrarian food factory, with vast fields of cabbages and brussel sprouts planted by satellite controlled machinery, tended by low paid migrant workers.  Factory farming of animals and planning requests for huge barns or ‘super dairies’ where cattle never see or walk on grass have received much local coverage.  Animal welfare was not discussed at the event, but one wonders about the attention and veterinary care given to a £10 horse.  Reports on the poor quality of practice in chicken farming have inspired consumer distaste.  One hopes that this will be extended to other animals deprived of a natural existence.  Recent research on crustacean welfare and subsequent comments would have been inconceivable 10 years ago and is a source of hope that attitudes are changing.

Throughout the evening personal opinions and supporting anecdotes were encouraged.  Grant Shapps arrived with a specially prepared 36 item briefing document.  Caroline Flint had little opportunity to discuss the need to control climate change from a long term international perspective.  Roland Rudd appeared extremely knowledgeable and his fact-based opinions were underused.  Mary Beard did not discuss the historically contingent nature of nationalism and that England was once a Roman colony at the edge of the known world.  Nigel Farage gained much support from this audience for many of whom migration from Eastern Europe is perceived as the most significant aspect of current social change.

The evening was no more than a snapshot of views, balanced as far as the organisers could ensure, within the constraints of the programme and the assumptions of the participants.  It was not and could not be a serious and in depth discussion of underlying causes and potential solutions to problems and concerns.  Perhaps the most powerful comments came from a lady who had made a ‘private, no camping’ notice in five languages and was unable to prevent migrant workers from using her land in Boston.  Such personal frustrations were understandably of more immediate significance than issues such as why, in a continent as wealthy as Europe, living on an illegal campsite in a foreign country is preferable to existence back home.

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