Saturday 19 January 2019

Was 'Question Time' biased against Diane Abbott?

Was this week's edition of Question Time (which, unusually, I watched - and, even more unusually, very much enjoyed), biased against Diane Abbott?

Senior Corbynistas around the Labour leadership are claiming so, and an aide to far-left Labour MP Chris Williamson, Jyoti Wilkinsonwrote the following (which is receiving wide coverage):

New presenter Fiona Bruce came out to address the audience.  Hailed for her performance from the week before by fans, and after happily approving of the sycophantic praise that she was being adorned with from some quarters, Bruce proceeded to warm up the crowd.  I am aware that this was indeed a tradition with former host David Dimbleby, and audience members were encouraged to participate as vocally and enthusiastically as possible.  Nothing wrong with that, an exercise in democracy it would seem. 
However, it was at this moment in time that the real hostility towards Diane Abbott became evident.  Each panelist was given a brief bio; Rory Stewart – a member of the Government, Kirsty Blackman – SNP and a remainer, Isabel Oakershott – ardent brexiteer and Anand Menon – academic expert on the EU.  
When Fiona Bruce introduced Diane Abbott, Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary, she took it upon herself to instigate a roast. Comments along the lines of ‘let her know what you really think’ and ‘some may think she is in the shadow cabinet because of her very close relationships with Corbyn, nudge nudge, wink wink’ were made.  This indeed had the desired effect, and the carefully selected audience guffawed in delight as they had now been given licence to air their bigoted views in public.  An audience member in a pinstripe suit commented “I’m going to ask her to do a sum, but she will just claim its discrimination I’m sure.” This level of deliberate antagonism from the BBC is a disgrace, and the institution now desperately needs to be held to account. 
Now these terms were set, the now legitimised hostility became all too clear.  A brief practice session took place, where the most reactionary members of the audience were identified so that they could be returned to during the show.  Diane was given the cold shoulder as the other panelists chatted together chummily, and she was spoken over as if she did not exist.  
During the debate, the Shadow Home Secretary was interrupted by Fiona Bruce more times in three minutes that the others were in twenty.  Audience members barracked and abused her, questioned her legitimacy and jeered, empowered by the licence they felt they had been granted by the BBC to do so.  Sympathisers such as myself were simply ignored.  At one-point Fiona Bruce and Isabel Oakeshott ganged up like playground bullies to ridicule Diane Abbott over Labour’s polling, both making statements later proven to be false. 
BBC’s Question time is portrayed as a truly democratic spectacle, where the public can engage members of the Government and Opposition, as well as leaders of their field.  In reality, it is far from it.  It is a farcical stage-managed state propaganda tool in which the BBC use and legitimise institutional racism, misogyny and bigotry to stoke up reactionary sentiment amongst the general population.  At the very least the BBC needs to be reformed and we must build a new media.  This cannot be done soon enough.

So did Fiona Bruce single out Diane Abbott for mockery before the show began? Well, we mightn't be entirely inclined to believe a partisan aide to Chris Williamson, but another member of the audience has supported Jyoti's claim that there "was some humour at Diane's expense from BBC staff before the recording", while yet another said that "Fiona Bruce basically made fun of Dianne (sic) Abott (sic) in the briefing before it aired".

I'm assuming these widely-quoted claims are the ones the BBC is referring to when it talks of "reports circulating on social media" that are "inaccurate and misleading", continuing:
We firmly reject claims that any of the panel was treated unfairly either before or during the recording.
We can't be sure who's got it right here not having been there and not having seen the before-the-recording goings-on, and we can never be sure unless a (covert) recording emerging of it, but we can judge the claims about how Ms Abbott was treated during the programme itself.

Was Jyoti Wilkinson - as well as an oft-quoted Labour spokesperson - correct to say that she was interrupted by Fiona Bruce significantly more than the other panelists? Well, yes. By my reckoning, overall, Diane Abbott was interrupted 17 times, whereas Rory Stewart was interrupted 10 times and the SNP's Kirsty Blackman times (with the two non-politicians being interrupted even fewer times).

As to his specific point that "during the debate, the Shadow Home Secretary was interrupted by Fiona Bruce more times in three minutes that the others were in twenty", clearly alluding to the opening 25 minutes of the programme, well, yes, that's an exaggeration but not too much of an exaggeration. I make it interruptions for Diane Abbott and 15 interruptions in total for the rest of the panel during that time.

As for mockery during the debate, well again, yes, I do think that Diane Abbott got least respect from Fiona Bruce this week. My favourite jibe was this one:
Jeremy Corbyn sometimes says you have to talk to people with whom you profoundly disagree. He was talking about Hizbollah and Hamas. [Audience, panel laughter. Strong applause]. Theresa May?
But when Jyoti says that "at one-point Fiona Bruce and Isabel Oakeshott ganged up like playground bullies to ridicule Diane Abbott over Labour’s polling, both making statements later proven to be false", is he right (about the statements)? Well, yes, he is correct that both ladies did indeed make statements later proven to be false. These concerned the polls, and Isabel Oakeshott's claim that Labour was way behind in the polls - a claim Fiona Bruce echoed (including adding a "Definitely".) But of the latest ten polls 4 show a Conservative lead, 3 a Labour lead and 3 a tie, so - despite what Fiona Bruce said - there's no "definitely" whatsoever about the Labour Party being way behind in the polls. Note, however, that Isabel also talked about the Labour leader being way behind in the polls, and about that she's right.

More generally, was the audience biased? Well, despite having Labour Party activists (like Jyoti) in the audience, the bulk of the audience did seem - to the amazement of many Leave-supporting viewers! - to be strongly pro-Leave, and strongly pro-'No Deal' (giving that idea a HUGE cheer). Was it because they were the bulk of the audience, or only the most vocal part of it? Well, it did look as well as sound like the majority of the Derby audience to me - though there were plenty of exceptions. And, yes, Diane Abbott was their main target for booing, heckling and jeering.

As far as Brexit goes, was the panel biased? Isabel herself tweeted "Am I the only Brexiteer?" accompanied by "#prayforIsabel". Was she? Well, yes, if you mean a committed Leave voter who doesn't outright reject 'No Deal'. An audience member, however, took what might be called 'The Rob Burley Line' on this, quoting her tweet and telling her to look to two of the people sitting next to her - namely Rory Stewart and Diane Abbott, both of whom speak (in their different ways) of honouring the referendum result and being committed to us Brexiting (in some way or another, to some degree or another). I'll let you judge the truth of that particular 'line' for yourself.

As for whether the BBC "whipped" up a "hostile atmosphere" towards Diane Abbott because she's "a black woman" or was guilty of "legitimising racism" (as Labour MP Barbara Keeley put it), well, I don't think the BBC could ever be accused of intending that.

There are other reasons to jeer and heckle at Diane Abbott, especially after she opens her mouth.


P.S. Away from all of this, Question Time had an "expert" on - our old friend Anand Menon - who Fiona Bruce treated in the usual BBC way. I appreciated his take on a second referendum, so I thought I'd share it will you (just in case this post wasn't already more than long enough):

It might well be that another referendum - I can't stand the phrase People's Vote I afraid - ends up being the only way forward. And I don't think it's anti-democratic. If Parliament legislates for something, that's democratic under our system. But I think you've just got to be honest about how hard and how divisive it would be. 
Firstly, it's hard to achieve, because Parliament have got to agree to legislate for one......and then they've got to agree to a question, which would be a nightmare. 
I don't necessarily think it would be better than the first time round because I still think it would be an argument about a future about which we have no facts. It would be just as speculative and vague as the first one. 
And it would be massively divisive. Because whatever else you think about the referendum of 2016, it was a remarkable moment in our democratic history that mobilised people who either haven't voted or haven't voted for a long time and I think those people would, with some reason, feel a little bit hacked off that they were asked to do it again. 
And the final question I suppose is, would it definitely fix things? And there I'm a little bit uncertain because if you imagine we had another referendum, imagine we got to the stage were Parliament couldn't decide and we defaulted somehow to another referendum and we ended up with the result that was 52-48 the other way on a smaller turnout than 2016, with fewer than 17 million people voting Remain? Would that settle the question? No. 


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. This made me laugh....

  3. Fiona Bruce - contra BBC's claims - is clearly not up to the job. Mumbling into her script, putting her hands all over the guests, constantly interrupting guests (often before they have managed to get a sentence out), failing to curtail personalised insults, attempting to corrall people into a consensus and displaying bias towards some guests.

    Now, amazingly (and hilariously), she has become victim of the beast that the BBC feeds so assiduously everyday - PC Leftism.

    One does wonder. I thought she was very negative towards James Cleverly - also a "person of colour" - in the first episode...I assumed it was because of his politics. But maybe not. That said, of course the BBC is ambivalent towards Abbott as she is now backing Corbyn. The BBC are more soggy left not hard left: Creasy not Corbyn (though that might be changing as the influence of Corbynism grows).

    I think Bruce was also factually wrong to imply (in agreement with Isabel Oakshott) that Labour were trailing in the polls. UK Polling report give the results of two post New Year polls:

    Survation: CON 38%(-1), LAB 41%(+1), LDEM 10%(+2), UKIP 4%(nc)

    BMG: CON 36%(-1), LAB 36%(-2), LDEM 12%(nc), UKIP 6%(+2)

    Bruce is just not up to the job. Dimbo always built in deniability into his biased interventions. Bruce is shown to be just plain wrong.

  4. National percentage polls don't matter
    Lab or Con can get a higher national percentage and still lose the election.
    It's polls of seat wins, that count.
    I took it that at the moment Labour are still way behind in number of likely seat wins.

    1. Don't think that follows. Remember Miliband was working on a 30% strategy to get victory, with SNP support if necessary. With unreformed constituency boundaries the Conservatives votes are worth far less than Labour's on average. Yes, Labour does tend to pile up votes in its heartlands but mass immigration is turning London into a Labour stronghold now - quite different from the picture even 20 years ago. As far as Labour leaders go, I would say Corbyn is doing quite well in the polls, given a full on Remain message might alienate many Labour voters - so he has to tread carefully.

  5. Regardless of this argument, I was one of the many viewers who was surprised - dare I say even stunned! - to watch an episode of QT in which the noisiest section of the audience was not comprised of far-left activists steeped in PC and social justice brainwashing.

    It seemed that the audience was a truly representative sample of ordinary people from an area that voted strongly for Brexit.

    I'm sure the Beeb will be taking steps to make sure they don't let that mistake happen again (and they'll point to complaints like the one mentioned in this post as grounds for making sure they weed out the non-Lefties).

    1. There was similar occasion during the Referendum, when suddenly at one QT there was a reasonably balanced audience. Odd. Do they use different ticketing procedures around the country? I don't know but I don't see how it can vary so wildly purely by chance.

    2. I think it's supposed to reflect the balance of political opinion in the area it's visiting (which is why you don't always get a heavily pro-Remain audience), along with some other balancing criteria such as demographic composition. There's a questionnaire for applicants, as far as I remember, which asks about politics, probably sex, race or ethnicity and I don't know what else.

    3. London voted 60-40 in favour of Remain - not 90-10 which is the impression given by London QT audiences. I've said before, it's not beyond the wit of the BBC given it's multi-billion resources to create a system where they can guarantee that the audiences properly represent opinion on the main issues of the day.

    4. Yes, you'd never guess the London split was as close as that.

  6. Without the footage or transcript, it's impossible to interpret what the warm-up did to Diane Abbott. Unlike Craig, who enjoyed the programme, I found the overall amount of interrupting and inserting herself into everything, by Fiona Bruce, extremely annoying, without noting whom she was interrupting and how often. As well as the number of interruptions, how much time did each panel member speak for, were they all offered the same number of opportunities and amount of time (between and around interruptions), etc? [Rhetorical]

    Some impressions: I was surprised at how short were the contributions of the SNP lady. I forget her name. Surprised because I've seen her in the Commons where she rattles on such length it's almost exhausting to listen to. The academic was new to me and interesting, as in the extract quoted by Craig. I listened with interest to what Diane Abbott was saying about another referendum but don't recall much else she said, apart from interrupting Isabel Oakeshott after one word. I don't recall anything of what Rory (I forget his surname) said. I ,must have missed his or tuned out mentally.
    It was surprising to me how enthusiastic and pro Leave the audience was. That's relatively unusual on BBC programmes. Of course it would be hostile to a Corbynite such as Diane Abbott for that reason if nothing else.

    I wonder if this animation of the audience is part of the BBC's wanting a 'softer' feel to the programme when they appointed Fiona Bruce. Do they mean less formal, more participation and to and fro with the audience? Or should I say with the presenter? I did think Kirsty Wark was the obvious person for the job but maybe they wanted to get away from the traditional type of heavyweight politics presenter?

    I notice on the twitter links Craig posted some -ist (ageist sexist racist) commentary from one or two of the complainants about Diane Abbott's treatment, along the lines of objecting to an audience of predominantly middle-aged or old white men and a disparaging reference to Isabel Oakeshott as the blonde stuck up one. Charming. Makes one question who exactly has the problem.

    1. I was irritated by Bruce's constant interrupting of the panel members in her first outing and she was possibly even worse this time round.

      I thought the idea was for the panel to be grilled by the public (in the form of the studio audience), whereas Bruce seemed to be treating it as Newsnight Lite and playing the role of the Interrogator General.

      But far more significantly, I spent the entire programme transfixed by Bruce's staggering resemblance to Noel Fielding of Mighty Boosh (and now Bake Off) fame. Are they by any chance related?

    2. You weren't wrong about Kirsty from the SNP getting little time. She got least time at all.

      These totals include the time the panelists got to speak plus Fiona Bruce's questions/points directly to them (and a little time for applause, if they got any). So it's their total time in the spotlight (give or take a few seconds!):

      Rory Stewart = 11m 24s
      Diane Abbott = 10m 03s
      Anand Menon = 9m 33s
      Isabel Oakeshott = 5m 58s
      Kirsty Blackman = 5m 45s

      And one more stat. If you total up all the specific points Fiona Bruce made (personally-directed questions, heckles, interruptions, etc), she intervened with the panel 55 times.

      And that's not including her introductions, her repetitions of the questions or any of her interactions with the audience, or reading out of social media stuff (and so on).

      She was very interventionist, and more like an interviewer.

    3. Maybe I sensed Rory Stewart droning on and mentally switched off! On the occasions when I noticed Kirsty Blackman, what surprised me was that she made a short comment and that was it; it wasn't that she was cut off or prevented; she herself stopped. She probably also didn't intervene in discussion as much as others but waited to be invited. It may have been her first time on Question Time or a programme like it. In the Commons she's voluble.

    4. Looking through the list of past guests (on Wikipedia), it turns out to be her second time on QT. That panel made me smile. Even if she'd wanted to be a prima donna the first time round, she was put alongside the likes of Julia Hartley-Brewer and Will Self - people very happy to steal the limelight in front of the public.

    5. They are both great talkers. She is the Economics spokesperson for the SNP which I suppose is why she she's heard so much in the Commons. Fair enough, she is speaking to the brief but she doesn't half go on. I was expecting the same on Question Time.

  7. Too much interrupting from the Chair, too much shepherding from the Chair and too much (erroneous) opinion.

    I was transfixed not by any passing resemblance of Bruce to Fielding but by Anand's earring...his colleague Jonathan Portes has one as well. Is it like one of those secret societies? I thought Anand had turned down the pro-EU propaganda. Is he trimming his sails to better please the Corbynites? I get a strong sense that is happening more and more. People are becoming fearful of their future prospects under a Corbynista "People's Democracy".

  8. I didn't even see the ear ring. Not paying attention again. I should sit down properly and watch the programme with full attention instead of flitting about or reading the newspaper at the same time. There used to be a code years ago among 'the gays' about wearing an earring on one side or the other. I forget whether it was the right or the left. Anyway, that's going back so far to the 1970s /80s it may no longer apply. Knowing nothing about him, other than the academic post and institution, I assumed we'd get an ardent pro-Remainer.

  9. Bless...


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.