27 October 2009

Why isn't Question Time as entertaining as it used to be & what should be done about it

Watching the recent Question Time reminded me, as a former addict of the programme, that it's been many years since I've watched it more than very occasionally.

There are two reasons why it lost its grip on me, and I'm curious to know whether I'm alone in my disaffection for the show

1. Unpredictable eccentric or straight man?
For me, the first step downhill came when the BBC selected Peter Sissons to replace the late Sir Robin Day in the chair, and the second when they appointed David Dimbleby to take over from Sissons.

I've nothing against Sissons or Dimbleby, other than that they are too straight and predictable to make the programme anything like as entertaining as it was when Day was in charge.

Apart from his quick wit, Day's assets included impatience, irritability and an adversarial willingness to put people in their places, regardless of whether they were on the panel or in the audience - all of which you can see being displayed in a short video of the virtuoso in action on the BBC website a few months ago HERE.

For what it's worth, my candidate for the job after Day retired would have been Peter Snow, after whom I'd have gone for Jeremy Paxman. Different from Day, yes, but both with a degree of eccentricity and unpredictability of the kind that used to make Question Time so very entertaining.

2. Five guests on the panel is one guest too many
The programme was originally conceived as a television version of Radio 4's long running Any Questions, which had and still has four guests on the panel. But some time back, Question Time added a fifth member to the panel.

This has not only reduced the amount of time available for each speaker, but has also made it easier for some guests to hog the conversation to the exclusion of others (e.g Jack Straw in the most recent show).

There are also, as readers of Lend Me Your Ears will know, some good technical reasons why the smooth operation of turn-taking tends to degenerate as the numbers involved increases - and becomes especially tricky once you have six people sitting around a table, as on Question Time in its current form.

1. Replace David Dimbleby with Jeremy Paxman of Newsnight or recruit Jon Snow from Channel 4 News (and/or perhaps rotate the chair in the way that's worked pretty well on Have I got News for You).

2. Go back to having four guests on the panel instead of five.

(See also the Not the Nine O'clock News version of QT).

Mark Pack has added a good point to this on his blog via BloggersCircle:

'.. for me at least there is a different key factor:with the huge increase in the number of media outlets over the last 20 years, it's just simply no longer as interesting to see politicians being questioned - because you see, hear and read them answering questions all over the place nearly all the time.'

I agree that the increase in media outlets and the fact that we now see more of them being questioned are things I hadn't taken into account.

However, I don't think we see or hear them actually answering questions - with one exception HERE - and their routine evasiveness has been a regular theme on this blog since it started just over a year ago to which a selection of links can be found at the bottom of this post on a duel between Andrew Neil and Yvette Cooper).

You can also link to some more amusing links to classic interviews below:


essay compare said...

I like to ask if we can exchange link with our blog?

Stephen Fleming said...

Panellists are frightened to say anything too 'interesting' because they face the threat of trading a career in public life for a soundbite.

Martin Belam said...

Maybe nostalgia may be a factor in making the Robin Day era seem so lively? The fact that on a lot of issues you can barely tell the policies of the two main parties apart can't help either...

Thomas Byrne said...

I've never seen ye olde Question Time so I couldn't comment, but I do have a few ideas about what's going wrong now. Post incoming perhaps (I have lots of college work to do :( )

Norfolk Blogger said...

I think politicians were less schooled years ago in how to avoid answering questions. It does need a host who can tell the person to shut up, answer the question or they won't be asked again.

Matthew Hewitt said...

The real problem with Question Time in my view is that it is boring because the politicians are more concerned with getting across the "party line" and attacking their opponents than engaging in genuine debate. It still has the capacity to be entertaining when, for example Ken Clarke is on, as he is not concerned with towing the party line and will concede that his opponent might have a point (occasionally).

Julien said...

I agree that Question Time is far less watchable since the departure of Robin Day, although I think David Dimbleby is infinitely preferable to Peter Sissons – even though Sissons is probably more abrasive than Dimbleby and thus more similar to Day.

My main objection to the programme now is that I think there is far too much audience participation. And, with some rare exceptions, the contributions from the audience are garbled, trite or banal. That's not always down to the qualities of the audience member in question. They have no idea that they are about to be called upon to speak and often look like rabbits caught in the headlights. They are rarely given the time to develop a point. And they are so nervous about being on television that they are probably much less articulate than they are in the pub.

The best contributions from audience members are normally crisp sound bites - although I have heard plenty of attempts falling flat.

Another interesting point about Question Time is the presence of contrived applause.

Many audience members will be members of a political party, both because the politically active are probably disproportionately interested in a programme such as Question Time and because political parties are automatically given invitations so as to ensure "balance".

I have often noticed bursts of applause to a not particularly well made point EITHER because it comes from a particular panel member OR fits in with the prejudices of that section of the audience. Such applause sometimes comes where there hasn't even been a decent list of three or contrasting pair) - but it is particularly noticeable because only one section of the audience is applauding and for an embarrassingly short period of time: what I have always called "clapping with question marks", since I heard Andrew Marr use the expression in connection with some applause he heard (in which I participated, oddly enough) during a speech by Iain Duncan Smith.