Mark Stockwell is a freelance writer and a former Conservative policy adviser.
I’m not going to get into any nonsense about whether Fiona Bruce can ever be as good as David Dimbleby or Robin Day. Of course she can. I’m not going to discuss whether a female presenter will be a breath of fresh air. Maybe she will. But Question Time’s problems run much deeper, and go back a lot further than the regrettable decision to start inviting ‘entertainers’ and other ‘celebrity’ panellists on alongside serving politicians. That has helped to devalue the programme, but was itself a response to a structural problem.
In its heyday, it was a fixture in the political calendar: Thursday night meant Question Time, just as surely as Saturday 3pm was when the football kicked off. That had something to do with the engaging personalities of its presenters, no doubt, but a great deal more to do with the dearth of political programming on TV in those days. For a politically interested teenager in the 1980s and a mild obsessive in the 1990s, Question Time was an oasis in the desert.
People hungry for lively discussion of current affairs and political debate really had nowhere else to go. Politics on TV consisted mostly of straight reportage or fairly staid set-piece interviews. The likes of Sir Robin Day and Brian Walden were capable of getting under politicians’ skin, but there was next to no opportunity to see senior politicians being questioned by members of the public, or debating with one another.
For politicians, appearing on Question Time was a high-risk/high-reward tactic. A strong performance would be seen as an indicator that they were effective communicators and had the common touch. They would be marked out to take a step up the ladder. A bungled answer, a gaffe under pressure, even just a cold reception from the studio audience — all these could be the equivalent of a snake.
Deciding who to ‘put up’ for Question Time each week, and briefing them for the occasion, was an important part of the parties’ media operations.
More often than not, it would be real frontbench heavyweights — the Ken Clarkes and Michael Heseltines of the world (in a time when such europhile voices were still able to occupy senior frontbench positions). Nowadays, with the power largely in the hands of the producers, the panellists are just as likely to be gobby backbenchers or even (heaven forbid) former party staffers who are particularly vocal on Twitter. True, we are occasionally treated to one of the Shadow Cabinet, but the impression left on the viewer is largely the same.
The fact is that people who are likely to be interested in a programme such as Question Time are now saturated with politics on TV and radio, and we are able to see senior political figures on our screens at any time of day or night. Rolling news gives us politics 24/7, ad infinitum, ad nauseam. And that’s without taking social media into account. By the time it gets to Thursday night, even my hunger for political programming is largely sated.
I am a Question Time loyalist, and I continue to tune in most weeks; but these days I’m just as likely to listen to the simultaneous broadcast on the radio while I get ready for bed. And sometimes, I just clean forget it’s on. That may be as much a comment on my advancing years as the quality of the programme, but I suspect I am fairly typical of the programme’s demographic. I like Fiona Bruce. I hope she can pull Question Time out of the doldrums. But I fear its time has past.