2 May 2010

Anti-Brown & pro-Cameron bias in Dimbleby's repetition of TV debate questions?

During the third TV debate, there were quite a few complaints on Twitter (and elsewhere on the internet) about the frequency with which David Dimbleby, the BBC's moderator, kept interrupting the discussion to repeat the questions that had prompted it (see below).

I too found it vaguely irritating, not least because I've long had doubts about the way Dimbleby chairs BBC's Question Time compared with the much more incisive and entertaining style of the late Sir Robin Day (for more on which, see HERE).

I also found Dimbleby's repetition of the questions needlessly distracting - if only because it took my mind away from the debate to reflect on why he was doing it, and whether he'd found something in the 76 rules of engagement that the previous moderators had missed.

But I can't see anything in the relevant section (Rules 58-64 below) that encourages moderators to repeat the questions. In fact, you could even argue that such frequent repetition of the questions was actually a breach of rule 60 - as it interfered with, rather than ensured, 'free-flowing debate':

Role of the moderator
58. To moderate the programme
59. To keep the leaders to the agreed time limits
60. To ensure free-flowing debate being fair to all candidates over the course of the programme.
61. To ensure fairness on the direction of the programme editor
62. To seek factual clarification where necessary
63. It is not the moderator’s role to criticise or comment on the leaders’ answers.
64. The candidates accept the authority of the moderator to referee the rules on stage and ensure a free flowing, fair debate conducted within the agreed rules

So why did he do it?
Initially, I could only think of two possible explanations for Dimbleby's repetitive interventions.

One is that he may have thought that the two previous moderators, Alastair Stewart and Adam Boulton, had been too willing to stay in the background and he was now going show the youngsters how they should have done it.

The other is that, having waited for decades to preside over such a debate, he was jolly well going to make the most of it - and, as there was no ban on repeating questions, that was all he could do to get more of his own words in edgeways.

Or did it conceal a bias against Brown and in favour of Cameron?
However, having gone through Dimbleby's repetitions again in preparing this post, I noticed an intriguing difference in the frequency with which he chose to repeat a question before asking one or other of the leaders to speak.

He did it 6 times before selecting Brown, 3 times before selecting Clegg but only once before selecting Cameron.

In conversation, repeating a question that's already been asked usually means that you didn't think that what the other person had said so far was an adequate answer to the question.

If that was at the back of Dimbleby's mind in this (admittedly small) sample of repeated questions, it would imply that he was being more critical of Gordon Brown than of the other two, and that he may have had a bias in favour of David Cameron.

Have a look at the following and see what you think.

And, if you want to check it out more closely, you can watch the video of Dimbleby in action by scrolling down to Dimbleby's repetitions and clicking on the transcript of them at 'Key moments in text and video'.

Dimblebly's question repeats and reminders:
DD: Let me just repeat the question: we all know there are going to be spending cuts after the general election, no matter who wins. Why can't you be honest and tell us? I assume it means tell us about all the cuts you might make. Nick Clegg, you have a chance to respond to what the others said.

DD: Over the past few years, the taxman has taken more and more from the average worker's payslip. If you were elected, what would you do about taxes? Gordon Brown.

DD: Just before we go on, let me repeat the question. Over the past few years, the taxman's taken more and more from the average worker's payslip. If you were elected, what would you do about taxes? Gordon Brown, what would you say in reply to David Cameron's attack on you?

DD: Just a reminder of the question: this area, the Birmingham area, used to be full of businesses that made things. So many of them have been shut down or sold off and gone abroad. I want to know how you propose to rebuild the country's manufacturing industries. "We can't just have offices and shops." David Cameron.

DD: Let me just remind viewers and listeners of Radley Russell's question. Are politicians aware they've become removed from the concerns of real people, especially on immigration, and why don't you remember you're there to serve us, not ignore us? Nick Clegg?

DD: Once again, the question. Are politicians aware that they've become removed from the concerns of real people, especially on immigration? Gordon Brown.

DD: Mr Parkin's question was that he finds it galling that some who haven't paid into the system abuse it by living off state benefits. Gordon Brown.

DD: The question was about preventing the abuse of state benefits. Gordon Brown.

DD: Of course, education is a subject, a topic, policy, devolved from England, to Scotland and Wales, Northern Ireland. But I think the question goes wider. What will each leader do to ensure the children Mr Crowhurst teaches has the same opportunities in life from a very deprived area in Birmingham as those from any other school? Gordon Brown.

DD: So the question is about a teacher teaching in a deprived area of Birmingham, how do you ensure, as a leader, they will have the same opportunities in life as those from any other school? Nick Clegg.


Lonely Wonderer said...

I wondered that too. But it depends not just on who is subsequently called to speak, but also on whether that person has spoken before on this question, and also on who was just speaking before the question was repeated.

As you say, small sample for this kind of analysis, but I agree with you about Dimbleby & Question Time.

Anonymous said...

He does not do it on QT so I wondered what was going on.
However I believe you have missed one fact.
After the initial question was posed and one or even two panelists answered, he felt they had not addressed the question fully, so he repeated it.
In one clear instance David Cameron did not answer the question on whether the politicians worked for them and not the other way around.
DD repeated the question after this and Clegg answered it, but on the repeat DC still did not address it.
It could simply be a rather polite reminder to the panel that they were not addressing the question but simply coming out with their mantras, of which Clegg (the other two old parties + there they go again) and Brown (scare the electorate on a Tory win with drastic cuts on the public sector)needed to answer.
Judging by the very poor presentation skills of some of our politicians, bbc radio 4 announcers, and especially the left-wing professorial experts radio 4 keeps using, you must be a busy man (or should be)

Max Atkinson said...

Thanks to you both for these comments.

And I agree that one would need to look in more detail at who had said what before DD repeated the question. But there's a limit to how much time I'm willing to spend on it - especially on a Bank Holiday Monday!

Glad to hear from Lonely Wanderer that I'm not alone on Dimbleby's chairing of Question Time.

And Anon, it was generous of you to suggest that I should be busy at the moment, but I'm not actually as busy as I have been during previous elections and haven't (so far) made it on to Radio 4.

Duncan said...

It might sound a bit nutty but my alternative hypothesis is that it has to do with the speakers positions. You would repeat a question if you were concerned the audience, or the speaker, might have forgotten it after the answer another speaker had given. There are three possibilites:

(a) (as you suggest) DD is exhibiting a lack of confidence in Nick and even less in Brown.

(b) DD believes that Cameron, and to a lesser extent Nick, didn't answer the question asked so feels more obliged to repeat it.

(c) because he is used to reading from left to right he is more likely to believe the question might have been forgotten as he moves towards the right-most performer. The initial speaking order might also be an influence.

You may chose to believe (a) or (b), I find (c) most plausible.

Rowan Manahan said...

Hi Max,

I noticed it too while the debate was happening and I got the feeling that he was remonstrating with the previous speaker - who had invariably NOT answered the question as it was asked - and was grounding the debate on the topics the audience were asking. It was probably also intended to prevent the next speaker from responding to an off-topic point made in the previous answer.

Like the American presidential debates, I found the process fascinating, but with the stupidly short time limits and the frankly ridiculous number of spin-doctory rules, I found myself learning virtually nothing about any party's policies and only a very little about the personality and style of the three leaders.

Studying the tapes and closely examining the semantics and body language is for anoraks like us. For the typical, semi-interested, viewer, there was very little there beyond 'impressions' to latch on to.

Great fun for the anoraks, nice that Clegg finally got a chance to make his voice heard, but with a first-past-the-post electoral system, I don't see all of the effort as having made a whole lot of difference ...

Max Atkinson said...

Duncan & Rowan - thanks for these interesting alternative explanations and observations. There's clearly scope for a lot more research into this fascinating topic - which the mainstream media doesn't seem to have noticed at all!