Tuesday 5 February 2013

If I could come to you sir...

James Delingpole, star blogger at the Daily Telegraph, may be best known for his polemical pieces on global warming but he's also posted many a piece excoriating the BBC over its "left-wing bias". These go down very well with his supportive readership (though not with his unsupportive ones!) and you often see links to his anti-BBC posts at Biased BBC. There hasn't been one of those links yet to his latest post, however, entitled BBC Question Time bias: a mystery solved? where James informs us that he has now "stopped loathing Question Time", thanks to the "delightful audience" in "lovely Lancaster". (Yep, that's my neighbouring city and that's what we're like up here - delightful!) He went on to say:
I talked about this afterwards to the lady who vets the audiences. It's an urban myth that before each show the BBC sends a coach to pick their audience up from the Socialist Worker's Party Social Club, Hizb ut Tahrir and the EU Commission. In fact – and I totally believe this – they are rigorously screened and pre-selected to reflect the political spectrum.
I have to say that I've read countless comments over the years from people who firmly believe this "urban myth", that the audience is carefully selected to project the BBC's left-wing agenda and that it most assuredly isn't reflective of the political spectrum. Heck, I've made a few such comments myself over the years!

The audiences do appear to be overwhelmingly left-wing - making left-wing points, applauding left-wing talking points, attacking right-wing points of view, sitting in stony silence at the end of a right-wing guest's contribution and occasionally booing a right-wing guest. They do often seem to contain a surprising number of militant and/or trades union types too (in the old-fashioned, non-BBC sense of the word 'militant').

I monitored this very briefly (far too briefly for it to add up to much). One episode from Conservative/Liberal-dominated Cheltenham in October 2010 saw the following breakdown of all the points made by the audience:

Attacks on Labour/Support for the Coalition - 2  
Attacks on the Coalition/Support for Labour - 11  
Attacks on Lord Browne's (Coalition-backed) tuition fees proposals - 9  
Support for Lord Browne's (Coalition-backed) tuition fees proposals - 0  
Attacks on the BBC - 0  
Support for the BBC - 1  
Attacks on MPs in general - 1  
Support for foreign ownership of British football clubs - 2  
Attacks on foreign ownership of British football clubs - 1  

You wouldn't expect that from an audience drawn from Cheltenham in 2010, so soon after that year's general election, would you? It doesn't ring true somehow as being representative of the political spectrum - especially in Cheltenham. And that's how it usually seems to be with Question Time audiences week in and week out  - at least for many (particularly right-wing) people -, even when Labour is in government. 

I should have repeated that study over many months, but by then my dislike of watching the programme was too intense and I didn't. If I had carried out such a long-term study, what would it have proved? That unrepresentative-seeming audiences are a feature of Question Time, more often than not, I would guess - probably significantly more often than not. That would show that there really is an issue, a problem - and possibly a significant one - that needs tackling by the BBC. If figures of the type shown above were to  be carried out over, say, a year's worth of editions and if the results demonstrate the same heavy imbalance in a large number of Question Time editions - and very few (or none) trending in the opposite direction - then the BBC would be placed in an embarrassing position. It would be on the receiving end of some difficult questions, which it would no longer be able to dismiss as merely "anecdotal evidence", or as an "urban myth". That's the positive value of statistics. In this sort of area, complaints based purely on anecdote, on what someone "reckons" or "knows for a fact" or that "everybody with a braincell already knows" won't get the complainant very far with the BBC Complaints Department.

Would such a survey also prove the BBC's audience selection process to be a biased one though? No, it wouldn't. It might suggest but it wouldn't prove the BBC's culpability for the problem. Couldn't something else be causing the imbalance?

That said, such figures (if they showed a strong enough trend) would show that the complaints of (usually right-wing) bloggers and commenters that the Question Time audience is unrepresentative are true and that the BBC has, at the very least, been dismissing the problem without just cause - refusing to believe it or believing it but deliberately ignoring it. All of which would make it a potentially fruitful exercise to actually carry out such a survey. It would take up hours of the unpaid researcher's precious spare time every week though to do thoroughly and for anyone who dislikes watching Question Time would doubtless be a painful experience. It ain't something I fancy doing. Any takers?

Another reason why many (usually right-wing) people believe there to be a problem here is that they've read other (right-wing) commenters recounting their own problems with getting onto the programme as an audience member, usually failing to get beyond the questionnaire stage (where you write about your political views). They may have also read (as I used to read) blog-posts (on right-wing blogs) pointing out a particular Labour Party activist in the audience asking one of the main questions. Someone had recognised them.

I once read such a post and decided to see if I could use Google to check out an audience member in Cardiff - one who had asked a sharply-political main question sarcastically attacking UKIP. He had the air of a political type to me, yet here he was appearing as an ordinary member of the Cardiff public being rude about Mr. Farage. (The edition featured Nigel Farage). As he had a very unusual name up popped an identical name to his on Google. That identically-named man was a (failed) Labour local election candidate - not in Cardiff but in Coventry. A co-incidence of names? Possibly. Well, Google Images also showed a photo of the very same man from the Cardiff edition of Question Time at a social gathering, in Coventry. Aha! I didn't progress it beyond that after my e-mails to the local Conservative association (enquiring if they knew whether the Coventry Labour activist was on that particular Question Time edition) got absolutely no response. It almost certainly was him. Anyhow, that was enough to convince me of the "urban myth", being only too ready to make the extra leap of faith into believing that his presence in Cardiff - at Labour's  request? - was somehow also with the BBC's connivance. Looking back, that was a leap too far but it was a suggestive 'discovery' nonetheless. I was highly suggestive at the time. 

James Delingpole probably felt much as I did. He perceived a problem with Question Time audiences and deduced that the BBC's selection processes were the cause - and that the cause of that was bias, possibly intentional bias. Now he feels differently:
In fact – and I totally believe this – they are rigorously screened and pre-selected to reflect the political spectrum. 
I would bet he's right to believe them. I believe them now.

So what's the problem? Why do the BBC's Question Time audiences come across so often as being overwhelmingly left-wing and so unrepresentative of the whole political spectrum?

James Delingpole has an explanation:
Rather, the problem lies in the nature of politics. As I've argued countless times before, it's much easier to be left-wing than to be right-wing. To be on the left confers a spray-on niceness that alleviates you of all need to behave with any kind of decency or moral responsibility in your daily life because, hey, you vote Labour or Lib Dem or Green and that means you care about the oppressed, the disabled, the poor, the minorities, the bunny rabbits, the kittens in baskets with eyes in cutely different colours a bit like David Bowie's. Whereas to be on the right, obviously, means you just want the rich to get richer and for everyone else to get sent to death camps.

One unfortunate result of this is your typical Question Time audience. There are as many conservatives in there as there are lefties. Problem is, the lefties are often much keener to articulate their position because they know instinctively that they have the moral high ground whereas the conservatives are reluctant to stick their head above the parapet lest they be seen to be unkind. I'm not suggesting that they're justified in thinking or behaving this way: I'm merely pointing up human nature. We'd all much rather be liked than disliked, which is why there are so very few people out there willing to play the James Delingpole role. If there were I'd give up my job in a trice. I don't do it for the fun, I can tell you.
That does ring true to me. I recognise my own behaviour (as a cowardly conservative) in that description of how people behave in those sort of charged political debates (or, in my case, in most kinds of political debate outside the circle of family and most intimate friends). They might even take me for a left-winger at times. It's a variation on the old thing about Conservatives (in the days of the 1979-1997 government) not wanting to appear bad in front of opinion pollsters by "admitting" they voted Conservative! There probably are lots of right-wing people in those Question Time audiences. They just don't saying anything, or they clap along to points they don't really agree with to look as if they are on the side 'moral' side as the vocal left-wing neighbours sitting next to them. That sort of thing. Does this ring true to you too? (It's very different on the internet, of course).

Of course, this goes well beyond simple left-wing/right-wing issues. On matters of American and British foreign policy, involvement in wars, Israel, climate change, environmental issues, etc, there's usually an equivalent position to that 'spray-on niceness' position of the standard left-wing standpoint - making love not war, feeling sooo sorry for the Palestinians, fearing for the future of Gaia, and so on, and those are precisely the sort of views you keep hear being expressed by audience members on Question Time. Isn't that the real reason why Question Time audiences tend to appear so unbalanced - and so flippin' predictable on so many issues too?  

If that is the reason - and if the BBC can be forced to admit an ongoing, almost weekly, massive imbalance in the political stance from which most of its audience expresses its points - what can the BBC do about it? Could it divide its audience into sections for people who express a preference for each political party, with non-attached audience members being required to sit with those closest to their political opinion? (Rather like the seating plan of the Scottish parliament!) With like-minded people sitting together (and, thus, feeling more comfortable), the chairman could then ensure that a broad range of views is expressed by picking a balanced selection of people from each section of the audience....unless, of course, the problem James Delingpole identifies extends beyond the BBC studio. Those shy righties will probably be well aware that they are going to watched by a couple of million people perhaps on their tellies - including their less intimate friends and work colleagues! (Wouldn't want to say anything 'uncaring' in front of millions of people, would we?) Hmm, so what could the BBC do to ensure that its "rigorously screened" and "politically representative" audiences actually behave like a "politically representative" audience? Any ideas could be e-mailed to the programme perhaps!

Another possibility (and I'm thinking on my feet here) is that the left-wing members of the audience simply want to have their public say more than the right-wing ones, in much the same way that most of the many protest marches and demonstrations we see in the UK are carried out by left-wingers (or environmentalists, anti-war campaigners, pro-Palestinian activists, etc). Right-wingers (with very rare exceptions) don't march and demonstrate anywhere near so often (if at all). This seems to be a curious, long-term feature of British politics and appears to be mirrored in the Question Time audience. (It's a very different story again on the internet of course, where right-wingers can be as vocal and assertive as anyone else.) Could this be another reason for the imbalanced feel of Question Time audiences?

Questions, questions. The man in the red shirt at the back, yes you sir with the glasses, might know the answer. He usually does.

Of course, there are other concerns about the impartiality of Question Time. They will do for another post though. 

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