Monday, October 26, 2009

But What Happens Next (Question) Time?

[The biggest story in Britain this week was the appearance by ultra-right wing politician Nick Griffin of the British National Party (BNP) on the BBC's flagship debate show Question Time. It caused a nationwide uproar.]

In the mid nineties I bought the company that produced Question Time. In doing so my company Mentorn acquired bragging rights to one of the most revered brands on British television.

In those days Question Time had its own question mark hanging over it. After 15 years of Conservative government and with Labour still looking unelectable, politics and political programmes were dull as ditchwater. Ratings were at an all time low and the only reason for the programme’s existence seemed to be to provide a platform for MPs’ egos. There was even talk in BBC corridors of trying to kill off the dinosaur once and for all.

In 1995 we’d tried out a potential successor to the show. It was called You Decide, hosted first by Jeremy Paxman and then for its second season by John Humphrys. It was a radical format: 24 hours before the show went on air we posed a single question and asked viewers to vote. We chose hot topics like Should Handguns Be Banned? Then, whichever way the vote went, the programme presented the contrary view. In other words, on the grounds that there are two sides to every argument, we tested the viewers’ knee-jerk reaction to a sensitive subject and then put it to the test. With two opposing sets of experts lined up we only confirmed the guest list a couple of hours before the live show. Afterwards we took a second vote to see if viewers had been swayed by the counterarguments. They usually had.

The series demonstrated just how volatile public opinion can be and how, despite thousands of years of public education, prejudice still triumphs over perception. A fact that keeps some of our tabloids in business.

I doubt our format could have coped with some of the issues aired on this week’s Question Time. Would the BBC have dared to put questions of race and homosexuality to a public vote, and then spend an entire hour arguing the other way? You Decide ran for two years until New Labour arrived and saved Question Time’s bacon.

Now Nick Griffin of the BNP has given the old warhorse the biggest boost any television programme could desire. Eight million viewers tuned in to see Thursday’s car crash: few could have been disappointed. Even though I sold Mentorn some time ago, I still felt a glow of pride when I saw the credits at the end. It was skillfully produced, riveting entertainment. Rarely has a single television programme been so at the heart of current events. Celebration wine will have been flowing through the BBC hospitality room.

But what will be the fallout? The point most commentators seem to have overlooked is that wasn’t a one-off appearance. They were invited not by choice but by right, because of their success in the polls. Unless the public votes them off the guest list, the rules say that Griffin can return, in common with the other minority parties. That’s a huge problem for Mentorn’s producers and for the BBC executives who have ultimate editorial control. This week they legitimately made the BNP the subject of most of the debate because the press had already ensured that people were talking about little else. But they can’t do it twice. Griffin effectively neutered himself when he tried to justify his policies and his history. He was exposed as the nasty racist he really is and he almost certainly damaged his party’s cause. But what happens when he faces normal mainstream questioning?

I fear the odious man’s oily smile may begin to look a little more genuine to some when he’s allowed free rein to spread his disgusting doctrines amongst the rabble. And then it’ll be the responsibility of all of us to stand by with the counter arguments. And hope the nation listens before it decides.

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