THE BBC must change the format of Question Time and consider using a rotating host to address consistent accusations of bias, experts have said.

Dr Tom Mills, author of The BBC: The Myth of a Public Service, and Dr Phil Burton-Cartledge – who analysed the political balance and demographics across more than three decades of Question Time – have both insisted the programme is reducing the quality of political debate and doing a disservice to regions outside of London.

They said the political programme must make significant alterations if it is to rid itself of perceptions it is pro-Conservative.

Mills has suggested the BBC should consider using a rotating host instead of always having Fiona Bruce at the helm, place less focus on Westminster issues and overhaul the way questions are selected.

Burton-Cartledge, meanwhile, told The National the show needs to ditch its “gotcha” style of questioning, which he believes simply creates social media soundbites rather than raising the level of debate.

Both academics also agreed the format of the panel needs to change, with both suggesting the number of right-wing journalists on the show should be dialled back with more academics brought in.

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In recent years there have been dozens of occasions where the BBC has faced a backlash because of perceived political bias on the programme.

Last July, the BBC received more than 700 complaints about a show featuring RMT union boss Mick Lynch. No single issue up to that point in 2022 had attracted more complaints to the broadcaster.

Bruce was accused of “attacking” the trade union boss by consistently interrupting him, something which she has come under fire for several times since she took over from David Dimbleby.

Last month, Bruce was slammed for interrupting Scotland’s Net Zero Secretary Mairi McAllan more times than anyone else on the panel, which led First Minister Humza Yousaf to call for more “fairness and balance”.

Mills, who examined the BBC’s relationship with the state in his 2016 book, said he saw no reason for Bruce to host the show all the time and a rotating presenter could lead to local issues getting more airtime.

He told The National: “You could have a rotating chair.

“I don’t see why you shouldn’t have somebody local in the constituency chairing the discussion with more awareness of the kinds of local issues that might come up. I do think that might make the programme more receptive.”

The National: Dr Tom Mills wrote about the BBC's relationship with the state in his 2016 book The BBC: The Myth of a Public Service Dr Tom Mills wrote about the BBC's relationship with the state in his 2016 book The BBC: The Myth of a Public Service (Image: Tom Mills)

Burton-Cartledge said he believed Bruce was biased and agreed there was no reason not to look at a rotating host, but he added there was a broader issue with the “gotcha” style of questioning adopted by her.

He said it’s also evident in the “polarised way” questions from the audience are framed.

“Fiona Bruce is biased, but another problem is a particular style of gotcha interviewing that not just circulates on the BBC but across a lot of mainstream broadcasters,” he said.

“It’s all about getting that ‘gotcha’ headline or in the case of Fiona Bruce it’s to get that ‘gotcha’ that will make headlines on social media.

“The questions [from the audience] are framed in partisan, ‘gotcha’ ways as well. I think that is a massive problem.

“Perhaps if they were a bit more open and everyone was allowed the opportunity to expand on their position without constantly being tripped up by the host, I think that might be one way of making things better.”

Beyond the questions being framed in a less partisan way, Mills has suggested local people should be more involved with the selection of them, while they should focus less on Westminster issues.

Mills said: “In an ideal world, what you would want is a group of people who are broadly representative of the political demographics of a constituency to get together and agree what the questions and debates should be.

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“I do think the BBC and Question Time do a disservice to other regions of the UK that are not London.

“There’s a lot of political nerds on there talking about the ups and downs of Westminster. It’s easy for people to forget, especially those who watch Question Time a lot, but most people find politics boring, so a good starting point would be to focus more on particular issues people face in their lives and what politicians are going to do about it.”

Burton-Cartledge added: “Every Question Time should have a local focus, a local question that deals with a particular local issue that might not have any purchase outside that region but would still be of interest and would educate the public.

“The BBC is supposed to be about informing, educating and entertaining but the producers of Question Time just produce it as a low-grade form of entertainment.”

The National: Phil Burton-Cartledge said Question Time currently exists to create 'gotcha' soundbites Phil Burton-Cartledge said Question Time currently exists to create 'gotcha' soundbites (Image: Phil Burton-Cartledge)

The other issue which has attracted consistent complaints is the selection and makeup of the panel, which usually involves five people that are a mixture of politicians, journalists and celebrities.

There has been criticism over the years of the panel often leaning to the right or, in Scotland, having a pro-Union tilt.

Burton-Cartledge and Mills both argued the common presence of journalists on the panel, who are usually from right-wing publications, creates imbalance and there should instead be more experts that could better inform debate.

Mills said: “For the non-political person, who often tends to be the most useful person on the panel, I think there is space for broadening that category. There’s a skew there towards business versus trade unions but also the journalists are drawn from a very narrow social strata.

“There are experts you could bring in, there are people in civil society organisations and scientists and academics who I think could be better represented on the programme.

“I also think you’d want to move it away from the model of the government and the main opposition. It’s been recognised for a long time that the system of the domination of a major party and then a major opposition is not very effective for political debate.”

Burton-Cartledge added: “I think five panellists is too many. Everyone gets about two minutes and they get cut off. It reinforces that culture of getting the soundbite.

“I also think the panel needs to be broader. I always think there should be a government and opposition person and a member of another political party on there, but when it comes to the other person they have, invariably it's always a journalist or a celebrity.

“I've noticed in more recent years they've had more trade unionists on with the industrial action taking place, but I would suggest more academics, actual experts, or retired diplomats, or some other kind of expert that can add a bit of ‘this is what the data says on this particular issue’, rather than just some ranting right-winger.”

A BBC spokesperson said: “Question Time is always reviewing how the programme works. We take feedback on board and continually discuss ways to improve for our audience.”