Monday 7 October 2013

Where DOES the BBC find such partisan audiences?

The puzzle of those unrepresentative-seeming Question Time audiences also seems to be an issue with Radio 4's Any Answers - a puzzle addressed by Dominic Lawson in the Mail on Sunday:
My question to the panel: where DOES the BBC find such partisan audiences?
Where does the BBC get its audiences? More particularly, where does it find audiences for its political panel shows such as Radio 4’s Any Questions and BBC1’s Question Time? 
Last week’s Any Questions provided a classic example of the way Right-of-centre politicians collide uncomfortably with an impenetrable wall of hostility from what they might have supposed would be a balanced audience.
The latest episode was in Ilkley; the bruised Tory was the Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin. 
A question arose about the Government’s welfare reforms and specifically David Cameron’s proposal to restrict the benefits of those under 25 who were neither in education, employment or training, and who also spurned community work.
The opinion polls consistently suggest welfare reform is the single most popular aspect of the Government’s programme. Yet when McLoughlin advocated it, there was not a single clap to be heard, let alone applause. Instead he got the bird.
Yet Ilkley, part of rural Yorkshire, is one of the few remaining northern Tory redoubts.
Now you might think that the boos for the welfare reforms were generated by a disproportionately noisy claque within an otherwise supportive audience. As if to address this question among those of us listening at home, the programme’s host Jonathan Dimbleby called for a show of hands. He then pronounced the audience to be ‘overwhelming’ in its opposition.
Perhaps unable to believe the evidence of his own eyes, McLoughlin somewhat foolishly demanded Dimbleby go through the process again. This most experienced presenter did so and then declared, with a hint of satisfied vindication in his voice: ‘Yes, overwhelmingly against.’ 
All quite odd; and yet week after week a similar pattern of apparently Left-of-centre audiences even in overwhelmingly Tory territory manifests itself.
A couple of years ago I went on Any Questions with Tony Benn as a fellow guest. He was cheered to the echo. All right, the deceptively cosy former leader of the Labour Party’s Far Left is now 88 and in this country almost any public figure who attains a great age is automatically designated ‘a national treasure’. 
But this was in Wokingham, probably the bleakest prospect for a Labour candidate of any constituency in the land.
Dominic Lawson attempts an explanation:
;[For Question Time] There is an ‘audience application form’ for those who wish to take part, with questions on it such as ‘Are you a member of a political party?’ and ‘If there were a General Election tomorrow, which political party would you be most likely to vote for?’. 
This is a more rigorous approach than that employed by Any Questions, which essentially hands over the tickets to local organisations to distribute among their members.
So if the Left is better at organising on the ground (which, traditionally, it has been), then that would be one way of explaining the sort of thing that happened last week in Ilkley.
Yet even Question Time’s approach is highly vulnerable to manipulation. Does it check that applicants are telling the truth if they declare they are not a member of a political party? 
I doubt it very much. And how would they know if someone answered honestly the question about voting intentions? 
Admittedly, there is no reason why a Labour voter would be more cunning at hiding his or her real intentions than a Conservative one. Again, the issue might well come down to which groups are better at organising at grass-roots level; and the Conservative Party’s membership is atrophying by the day.
His closing words:
Still, whatever the future assortment of politicians on the panels of the two Dimbleby shows, and whatever the electoral fortunes of the main parties, one thing seems certain to persist.
They will always have audiences whose knees jerk to the Left — and noisily so. That is unless those on the other side of the argument are a little braver in raising their own voices.

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