The Student
Opinion
TV drama or political engagement? The case for Debate Night

Politics is showbusiness for ugly people, as the saying goes, and with that in mind it’s worth taking another look at which contestant the public want to vote out this week. ‘I’m a Celeb’ has ‘extra camp’ we have ‘Question Time’, ‘Debate Night’, ‘Newsnight’, ‘Andrew Marr’, ‘Brexitcast’. Never before has politics had so much coverage. Yet each of these shows claim to have their finger on the pulse of public opinion. All of them? Really?

The two we’ll focus on are ‘Debate Night’ and ‘Question Time’. Question Time has recently placed Fiona Bruce at the helm and much like her predecessor she boasts either an inability or unwillingness to maintain control of her panel, her audience and indeed the entire room. She refuses to force her panel to answer the questions they’re being asked and lays claim to some of the most selective hearing ever witnessed. Debate Night is the BBC Scotland version of the same programme. Chaired by Steven Jardine it offers calm and civil discussion. The panellists don’t know which questions they’re about to be asked. Questions are answered and in the case of any rowdiness Jardine quickly intervenes. Why so different? Why is Jardine successful where Bruce is not?

Question Time relentlessly gives people like Fiona Hartley-Brewer a platform from which they can berate and abuse whosoever is in their crosshairs that day. It also has an incredibly poor record when it comes to representation of different political parties and beliefs. Between January 2010 and June 2019, UKIP MEPs appeared on the show 45 times and Brexit party MEPs twice. No MEP from any other party appeared on the show in the same time frame. The fourth horseman of the British political apocalypse, Nigel Farage, boasts 23 appearances alone. Frequently giving these figures such a prominent platform shapes the structure of our debate. Certainly, the soundbites being dreamt up in the tunnels below Whitehall need to be tested somewhere and Question Time can be relied on to bend over backwards in obligation.

Most importantly: are the views we hear on these programmes genuine? If they are then there is naught to worry about, we can simply content ourselves with shouting at the telly when someone we don’t like has the brass neck to appear on our screen. But if there is cherry-picking of audience members going on, if there are party political plants among the participants then we should be dragging the heid honchos at the BBC over the coals. programmes like these should be an honest unfettered expression of public opinion.

These are some of the only times outside of elections that we can scrutinise the people who claim to represent us. It is paramount, therefore, that we are allowed to make our points and to raise issues which affect us. This is where Debate Night thrives, pushing for answers, asking about more than just Brexit, allowing us to engage in an open and reasonable dialogue with the people who run our country.

It does not require a stretch of the imagination to suggest that Question Time is designed to be watched rather than to educate. It serves as entertainment for the politically minded – a soap for boring people so to speak. BBC Scotland must be appealing to a vastly different audience with Debate Night. Jardine’s programme is best summed up with his tagline: “If you’re fed up with all the shouting then this is the place for you” – a sentiment we could all take to heart.

Image: liftarn via Open Clip Art Library