Friday, 30 April 2010

Prime Ministerial Debate III: Question Time

Watching the BBC debate show, Question Time, is a frustrating experience at the best of times. More often than not the panel of political representatives and media personalities are so busy spouting out their own sound-bites and prepared talking points that you are left screaming at your television set that they are not answering the question, or that they are lying, or that they have no idea what they are talking about, or that the views they are expressing have been outdated and discredited for twenty years… And even though the audience are allowed to speak and call these people to account, what usually follows is simply more of the same evasiveness and spin: the audience-member feels wonderful that their view has finally been represented, but the panellists air-time is longer and their voices carry more weight. The question is forgotten and only emptiness remains.

Last night’s episode of Question Time was doubly frustrating, because instead of being at home, where you are buoyed by a certain sense of detachment and the ability to turn the sound down, I was in the studio audience at Birmingham University and watched the entire thing live.

You would have thought that this would make it far less frustrating: instead of watching in futility at home, unable to get engaged with the debate and call the politicians on their spin and manipulation, in person I could actually put my hand up and get involved. I could ask my questions, I could state my opinions.

But I discovered last night that there is something much more frustrating than the impotence you feel at home when you see an entire panel of liars and idiots and there are no means of having your say: actually being in the audience, with your hand up for sixty minutes desperate to put forward your opinion, and not being called on throughout.

I’ll blame it on my positioning. We had no real choice in where we were seated and unfortunately I found myself at the far left end of a row quite near the back, not only out of the sight of most of the cameras, which concentrated mainly on the central section, but crucially – because of the placement of one of the main cameras that filmed the panellists – often out of the sight of David Dimbleby himself. Though he looked in my direction several times, for whatever reason, I wasn’t asked to participate. And so I had to sit, with my arm aching in the air, listening to hollow lies about the debate earlier that evening, awful and – yes – bigoted rubbish about immigration, the various ways in which the parties plan to cut public spending instead of taxing the rich and how democracy had changed for the better because of the implementation of vacuous television debates.

Still, despite not getting to add my own venom and bile to the vibrant melange of misinformation and spin, I had a thoroughly enjoyable time. It was nice, if nothing else, getting to boo Liam Fox in a roomful of people and hearing David Dimbleby tell us to “just bloody enjoy yourselves” before we went on air. It was also nice, in the sound-check portion of the technical rehearsal, to be able to ask a question of the fake stand-in panel even if I didn’t get to do it on TV. We were told we couldn’t address anything that might actually come up in the show, so I contributed this little enquiry to the proceedings: “This week, Stephen Hawking has told us that if we came into contact with aliens, it is highly likely that they will be hostile. Liam Fox, as Shadow Defence Secretary, should we go to war against the aliens?”

A heated debate ensued, with audience members and fake panellists suggesting that the rationale for war might be different if we knew that the aliens had oil and once we knew just exactly what the alien weaponry was like…and if they had weapons of mass destruction.

It was a hell of a long evening though. We arrived at the University at 5:45pm and didn’t leave until midnight. Once we’d arrived, we were bussed (quite needlessly – it was about a two minute walk) to the venue, where we sat around tables getting to know each other, eating free sandwiches and coffee and writing our second Question Time question.

We had already been asked to email a question earlier in the week. The question I had sent in was this: Would Conservative proposals to give parents public money to set up experimental new schools take vital funding away from the schools that we already have? I thought it would be something likely to come up being as how the Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, was on the panel, and there had been such an excellent furore about the issue earlier in the week that saw Michael Gove absolutely eviscerated on Radio 4.

It didn’t, and I wasn’t asked to read the question. But my second submission was this: Is it really so wrong to call a person “sort of bigoted” after they have just expressed some “sort of bigoted” views?

That obviously didn’t fit in with the editorial take on the whole “bigot-gate” incident though, because the version of the question ultimately asked in the show was: Are you a bigot to ask the Prime Minister about immigration? With not a single person on the panel (including Ed Balls), or Dimbleby himself, attempting to clarify the fact that Gordon Brown did not explicitly call Gillian Duffy “a bigot”, but rather described her, undeniably “sort of bigoted”, views as “sort of bigoted”.

After the coffee and question-writing was done, we moved into the real studio, where the alien-based technical rehearsal occurred and people were told whether or not their questions had been chosen. Sadly, after spending the earlier part of the evening with a great group of left-leaning people (utterly by accident – we were obviously drawn to each other), somehow I ended up sitting next to an excitable Tory guy who clapped vigorously at every empty trope Liam Fox uttered all night and tried to convince me that David Cameron had “won” the Debate.

Indeed – the Debate. Before Question Time began, we had a giant screen brought into the makeshift studio and watched the entire Prime Ministerial Debate live as an audience. This was actually pretty cool. Unlike watching at home, with just me and my wife grumbling to each other, or even watching it live in the auditorium, where you are not allowed to make a sound, watching the debate cinema-style in a big room full of people meant that we could boo and cheer as we pleased to the various points the leaders put across. We could clap when they said something sensible and we could call out “RUBBISH!” when they said something we disagreed with. Unfortunately, it was quite depressing to see how many people cheered and got excited when David Cameron laid into the usual Tory memes of immigrants and people on benefits. Indeed, on Question Time too, my heart sank at how deeply so many people feel this hostility towards immigration.

Still, the biggest cheers of the night went to Clegg, and when we were polled later via a show of hands, in our room, Clegg won. If I were a focus group manager for Gordon Brown I would point out two major observations from last night: Gordon Brown smiling makes the entire audience laugh, and not in a good way. And everything that he says – no matter how valid, reasoned and true it may be – simply does not connect with voters who have been misled and lied to by a promise-breaking Labour government for thirteen years. If anything loses him the election though, it will be the shit-eating grin he whipped out right at the end of his atrocious prepared final statement. The statement was bad enough – an attack on Clegg and Cameron instead of a robust defence of Labour and positive reason to vote for them, that ended with him telling people he was “desperate” – and then when he smiled I have never heard such a groan fill a room. Just terrible, and I actually thought he did really well once you take presentation out of the equation. That said, I was fairly disgusted that he failed to point out the fundamental, £40 a week better off in work guarantee and rise of the minimum wage, that, according to the two manifestos, separates Labour policy on cutting benefits from the Tory one considerably. In a bid to out-Tory the Tories, he simply pressed on about “no life on the dole” and forcing people to work. That correlating rise in the minimum wage and promise that when you are forced into a job you will be guaranteed to earn at least £40 a week more in work than you would on benefits, however, makes the Labour policy much more humane, but not a single voter watching the Debate last night will know about it.

I also can’t believe that the opinion polls have Cameron winning the Debate last night. What did he actually say that was any different from any of the two previous Debates, or indeed from the Conservative manifesto? Absolutely nothing. I guess it just proves that old adage that if you repeat a lie long enough, people start to believe it as truth. He was evasive, he offered platitudes instead of arguments, his policies don’t add up and all have fundamental flaws, and yet he drills through all the sound-bites and pounds them into your head and by the end of ninety minutes you feel like you’ve been convinced; a sophistry of the highest order.

It would have been nice to have said that on Question Time too – but I guess there’s always next time.

I just hope that next time it won’t be Prime Minister Cameron I will be talking about, and that on May 6th, even without having heard me speak on TV, the great British public will show me that they’re not as dumb as I think they are, and go to the polls and vote for our future, instead of our draconian past.

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