Friday 8 February 2013

Questions, Questions

OK. I didn't want to but I suppose I had to watch last night's Question Time. I endured it purely in the interests of using it as a test case (and, my, what fun it was!)

The programme came from the fairly safe Labour seat of Stirling, and featured Lib Dem Michael Moore MP; the SNP's Humza Yousaf MSP; Labour's Lord Falconer; Conservative MP Mary Macleod; and SNP donor Sir Brian Souter, Chief Executive of Stagecoach Group.

Let's concentrate on the questions though.

The first question selected by the Question Time team concerned the appalling standards of care found at an NHS hospital by a newly-published report. This was investigating the high mortality levels found at the Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust between 2005 and 2009 - the report into which can be read in full here. The report chronicles staff failings and substandard levels of care on an extraordinary scale. As well as revealing a lack of basic professionalism and compassion shown by doctors and nurse at the hospitals, its managers have also been blamed for cutting corners and covering up mistakes in an attempt to meet Labour's targets and win "foundation status" for the trust. So there's a lot of blame to spread around it seems. Commentators (not all on the right) have been making an obvious point, juxtaposing the shocking examples of neglect, incompetence and cover-up at Stafford Hospital (which caused some 1,200 people patients to die needlessly) with the sanitised and sanctified view of the NHS presented by Danny Boyle during the Olympic opening ceremony. "We ♥ the NHS."  

This scandal, as the politically-informed among you will realise, took place during the "boom years" of the last Labour government, when public money was pouring into the NHS. Cost-cutting may have been in the mind of managers at the hospital, but money from central government was still coming at them at record levels. What sort of questions might you have expected then on last night's programme, given that surely not even the most left-wing Question Time audience could try to blame the present Conservative/Lib Dem coalition government (and/or its austerity measures) for a scandal within the NHS from 2005-2009? 

How about these questions?: "Should the scandal at Stafford Hospital shake us out of our complacency about standards in the NHS?" or "Who's to blame for the appalling standards found in the Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust -  NHS managers, the last Labour government or NHS doctors and nurses?" Or how about something more neutral?: "What does the scandal at the Stafford Hospital tell us about standards of in the the NHS as a whole?" or "Who does the panel think is to blame for the appalling standards found at Stafford Hospital?" 

This, however (believe it or not), was the actual question chosen by the Question Time team to be asked:
"Are the appalling standards found at Stafford Hospital a sign of things to come from our NHS due to austerity?" 
Yes, the question and questioner selected did try to make it about the present government (elected in 2010) and did try to tie the scandal to "the cuts"! The point here is that it was the Question Time team's decision to pick that particularly-worded question to put to the panel (as they do with all questions). They made a choice. What on earth entered their heads when they chose it above all others (and presumably there were many questions to choose from on this subject)? It's certainly an odd question to choose in the circumstances, isn't it? Is it also a shocking instance of BBC bias? 

The question was so wide-of-the-mark that the panellists either almost entirely ignored or dismissed it - despite another audience member also giving it a try and despite David Dimbleby trying to get Michael Moore to discuss it. Yes, even the Labour and SNP representatives refused to go down the path the questioner clearly wanted them to go down. Was that the path which the Question Time team also wanted them to go down? If it was, why?

Regular readers of right-wing anti-BBC blogs will know that Chris Huhne - the pro-Green, climate change campaigner,Tory-bashing Lib Dem from the left-wing of his party - has always been a firm BBC favourite. I've read that accusation against the BBC so many times over recent years. What would such a reader expect from the unavoidable question about Chris Huhne which came up on Question Time last night in the wake of his guilty plea over the charge of perverting the course of justice and his subsequent resignation as an MP? That reader would surely expect the BBC to bias the question in Chris Huhne's favour. How? Maybe by picking a question from someone asking a facetious question which implies that Chris Huhne isn't a bad chap and it's all become a bit overblown - something along the lines, perhaps, of "Is Chris Huhne such a public menace that he deserves to be sent to prison?". The idea of Chris Huhne as "a public menace" or "a danger to society" is so hyperbolic as to sound ridiculous and phrasing a question like that would be quite helpful to him in the circumstances.  So that's the sort of thing someone expecting bias from the BBC might expect. And what question was chosen by the Question Time team?:
"Is Chris Huhne such a danger to society that he deserves to go to jail?"
Unsurprisingly, the panel said he most certainly isn't "a danger to society" and were full of sympathy for him and his family and the view seemed to be (except for the Conservative MP) that his wasn't a major offence (not compared to the actions of the bankers, of course. Clap, clap, clap, clap). Was this a biased choice of question? Given some of the audience comments there must have been some far less sympathetic ones to pick from.

Next came the obligatory Scottish independence question. Here bias-watchers need to be aware of two rival claims: One is that the BBC is pro-SNP and pro-independence; the other is that the BBC is anti-SNP and pro-unionist (in the Scottish sense of 'unionist'). Many at Biased BBC contend that it's pro-SNP. My one attempt to systematically follow a major Scottish current affairs programme (The Politics Show: Scotland) from late 2009 to mid 2010 found that its presenter seemed to be anti-SNP. SNP supporters, pretty much en masse, agree that the BBC is biased against them. Bearing all that in mind, what question was chosen by Question Time last night?:
"What do you make of recent polling that suggests that support for Scottish independence is at its lowest level since the creation of  the Holyrood parliament in 1999?"
Well, that's a question which most assuredly isn't biased in favour of the SNP! Does it also confirm bias on the part of the Question Time team though?

The most common complaint here, of course, is that the BBC is anti-Tory. The first question could easily be construed as being anti-Tory, and the final one was most definitely anti-Tory: 
"How can the Conservative Party claim to want a fair, more equal society when almost have their MPs opposed the Same Sex Couples Marriage Bill?"
So, despite the fact that it was a Conservative Party prime minister who brought the bill in, the Question Time team chooses an explicitly anti-Tory question about the passage of this potentially landmark piece of legislation. There were doubtless many others for them to choose from, but they chose that particular one. Is that also evidence of bias? 

Of course, if you expect the programme to push the anti-cuts agenda even in the unlikeliest of questions whilst covering Labour's tracks, or if you expect the programme to cover Chris Huhne's tracks for him, or if you expect the programme to be anti-SNP, or if you expect the programme to push an anti-Tory slant on a major piece of social legislation, then you will be highly likely to judge the programme makers' choice of questions last night to be "biased". My old self of three years ago, when I last seriously watched the programme, would certainly have expected all these things to happen in advance. That they did all happen last night when I was not really expecting them to happen is intriguing. Does it trouble you too?

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