Saturday 9 March 2013

Planting the seeds of suspicion

On an earlier post about the BBC's Question Time I wrote:
Another reason why many (usually right-wing) people believe there to be a problem here is that they' (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.
Well, it's happened again - and once more it's thanks to the world of blogs that we know about it.

As this Thursday's Question Time from Dover ended the eagle-eyed denizens of the social media began tweeting and blogging about the girl in the audience who had so passionately challenged Diane James - the UKIP candidate in the Eastleigh by-election and a panellist on that evening's programme. The audience member in question was Amy Rutland, who tweets as Rutters101. Rather naively, she seems to have failed to anticipate that 'spotting the Labour plant' is pretty easy in the Age of Twitter - especially when you choose to tweet about your own appearance on the programme "rip[ping] into the disgusting UKIP woman".

For, lo and behold, it turns out that she is no ordinary member of the public after all. She's a Labour Party activist; in fact she's the Regional Policy Co-ordinator for the Labour Party in Kent no less. It used to say so on her Twitter and Linkedin profiles. She panicked after the news of her involvement with the Labour Party broke, however, and deleted all those Labour references from both profiles. Unfortunately for her, bloggers screen-grabbed her original Twitter profile before she changed it (and before she protected her tweets), and the cached version of her Linkedin account still shows her affiliations. Oh Amy!!

It also turns out that she had spent that very afternoon with Labour's shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg, who was also on the Question Time panel with Diane James, and with Clair Hawkins, the Labour Party's parliamentary candidate in Dover. She'd tweeted about that too.

It certainly isn't entering into conspiratorial thinking to suggest that the fact that both Amy Rutland and Stephen Twigg were going to be at the same Question Time recording that night was bound to have come up at some stage during their afternoon chat, as it would have been a very peculiar conversation in the circumstances if their shared plans for the evening weren't discussed!

Similarly, it is hardly unreasonable to suspect that when a Labour shadow minister, a prominent local Labour activist and the Labour Party's parliamentary candidate in Dover get together they are bound to have discussed the hot topic of UKIP and its growing threat to their party.

Does that prove that Amy Rutland was indeed 'a Labour plant'?

This exchange ensued on Twitter the following day:
 We see you got your Labour plant/crony on Question Time to give the UKIP rep a hard time. How low will you/Labour sink to?
Mar 8  I didn't get anyone to do anything on QT. Knew many members of Dover audience. Some Labour, some not, all there in own right!
Mar 8  You may want to read  tweets from yesterday and revise that statement.
Clair hasn't got back to Grumpy Cockney on that one yet.

Amy Rutland may well have been there, alongside the other members of the audience ("some Labour, some not"), in her own right and may indeed have chosen to attack UKIP entirely off her own bat. It's impossible for us to know what she discussed with Stephen Twigg and Clair Hawkins. We can only guess and assume. I choose to guess and assume that they did discuss the possibility of her challenging Diane James. You don't need to be a cynic or a fan of The Thick Of It to suspect that possibility!

You will notice, if you watch the programme, that Stephen Twigg takes up her attack on UKIP "scaremongering" and that the camera focuses on Amy as she vigorously nods her agreement with him. You will also notice Stephen Twigg, without batting an eyelid, saying "But I just, going back to my original point,  hope that they [UKIP] will not engage in some of the tactics that we heard about from the questioner in the audience." ("The questioner in the audience" indeed! As if he didn't know her!! Damned dodgy politicians!!! How can you ever trust 'em?!?)

It would be interesting to know what proportion of an average Question Time audience are party activists. Clair Hawkins recognised other Labour people from this edition's audience. Was the girl in blue on the front row who backed up Amy and Stephen Twigg's "scaremongering" charge against UKIP another Labour Party activist? What about the teacher sitting two seats away from Amy defending immigration and attacking the government's education policy (while the camera focussed on Stephen Twigg vigorously nodding his head as she spoke)? Another Labour activist? How many Conservative, UKIP, Lib Dem (etc) activists were there in that audience? Is there a disproportionate number of Labour activists? If there is, is that because Labour is a party of dirty tricks and gerrymandering, or simply because ordinary Labour Party members are more politically active - and more physically active (in the sense of being bothered to get off their backside, go to a BBC recording and raise their hands to make a point) - than their counterparts in other parties? .

None of my statistic efforts can answer that. Only the Question Time researchers can supply the answer to that.

Please check out their online application form. It asks about which party applicants to join the audience support and whether they are a member of a political party. It asks a lot more besides. If the makers of Question Time wanted to rig an audience they could easily do so by exploiting those questions. They say they don't, of course - and James Delingpole, for one, believes them, if you remember. I don't disbelieve them myself either.

According to the BBC, the programme aims to ensure that the audience reflects the general political make-up of the voting public. An element of potential bias arises because the selection process is carried out by a BBC team and must, inevitably, depend to a certain extent on the subjective judgements of a collection of individual BBC employees. If, as is often assumed about BBC employees, they tend towards the Left side of politics far more than they do to the Right, their choices may unconsciously reflect their beliefs quite often. The rigging could be quite unintended but nonetheless very real. (I suppose the answer there is for the Question Time team to select itself on the same basis - ensuring a balance of Right and Left!!)

Moreover, party activists can very easily circumvent those questions by filling them in dishonestly, however - if they so choose. A Labour Party activist could pretend to be unaligned, or a UKIP supporter, or whatever - if they so choose. An unscrupulous political party could gerrymander Question Time audiences on a regular basis - if they so choose. And there's very little the BBC could do about it if they did so choose (except cancel the programme altogether!) Is Labour gerrymandering Question Time, or are these cases just isolated examples that mean nothing much?

There remain more questions than answers here. Plenty of smoke, only a small amount of fire. Still, this is precisely the sort of thing that makes a lot of people suspicious about the Labour Party....

....and about Question Time and the BBC.

Suspicions about Question Time and the BBC sometime imply or boldly state a very serious charge - active collusion between the Labour Party and the BBC. I don't believe that the makers of Question Time bus in Labour Party activists or that they deliberately intend their audiences to consists of an excess of Labour Party activists, however much it may seem like they do. As I've discussed this at length before I won't go over the same ground again.

Back to Amy Rutland. Her tweet "Don't miss out on Question Time tonight, you'll see me rip into the disgusting UKIP woman! -- Amy Rutland (@rutters101)" was made immediately after the programme was recorded. Question Time is recorded 'as live' and then broadcast to the nation shortly after. This has misled some commenters into assuming that she tweeted before going on the show, thus 'proving' that she knew she was going to be called by David Dimbleby and, thus, 'proving' BBC collusion in the attempted ambush of Diane James. They were mistaken on that point.

However, there's conscious collusion and unconscious collusion. Even if we accept (as I accept) that the makers of Question Time didn't have a chat with Amy and her Labour Party colleagues beforehand and arrange with them (and David Dimbleby) her ambush of UKIP's Diane James, there are questions about how her intervention was handled:

Was she given a lot more time than usual to make her attack?
Why was she allowed to re-ask the same question and make so many other points?
Was it not highly unusual for David Dimbleby to sit back and allow her to enter into a personal debate with Diane?
Did David Dimbleby side with Amy by continually trying to put Diane off and by re-making Amy's points for her? ("Exactly. Thank you David", she said after one particular helpful intervention!)
Why did it seem like a two-pronged attack on UKIP (by the Labour Party and the BBC)?
Did the camera keep lingering on her, again and again, too often, as others spoke? (She was shown nodding her head vigorously as Stephen Twigg denounced UKIP's scaremongering).

(Except for the last question, as the clip is too short...) please judge for yourselves:

Diane James handled the two-pronged attack well enough. Plus Melanie Phillips then launched a vigorous defence of the UKIP point of view that blew Amy's over-emotional, increasingly off-the-rails 'critique' of the party out of the water. Neither could have known at that stage that she was a leading Labour activist in the area, so neither could have thrown that point at her.

The interesting thing, as so often, is the audience response. My theory (as announced before) is that the Left's tendency to be more extrovert and public than the Right in their expression of their politics (all those demos, marches, etc) often results in lots of whooping, cheering, ostentatious clapping and booing - and lots more points - from their side in a typical Question Time audience while the Right usually sits quietly, listening. The impression is given, therefore,  that the audience consists almost entirely of left-wingers.

If you listen to the whole programme, however, you will notice the reaction to Melanie Phillips's response to Amy Rutland. The audience applause is strong, showing that there must be quite a sizeable chunk of shy Righties in that audience, daring to clap - and clap loudly! It was stronger than the applause Amy got.

OK. So what does this all add up to? We've got more evidence of Labour activists posing as members of the public on Question Time. We've got evidence of a Labour politician failing to disclose that he knows the questioner he's agreeing with, whilst shamelessly pretending not to know her. We know the Labour questioner and the Labour panellist got together with each other that afternoon. We know they reinforced each other's points that night on Question Time. Amy Rutland is not just an ordinary party member. I think, therefore, that the 'Labour plant' accusation is a reasonable one.

Beyond that, we've only got suspicions and questions about the BBC's part in this. A girl puts up her hand  and looks eager to speak. David Dimbleby calls her to speak. She attacks UKIP. He interrupts the UKIP speaker twice as she tries to reply to force her to deal with the questioner's insulting point about her party being "disgusting" and allows the questioner to make additional point after additional point, again reinforcing them. He allows it to go on for nearly three minutes. He elsewhere drolly refers to the UKIP question as "Ukipery". Bias?

You'll have to watch the programme yourself to decide. There's no rush. It will be available for a year. If you spot any more Labour activists, don't forget to tweet or blog it to the world. If there are shenanigans going on around Question Time, the social media will probably be the place that breaks the story.

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