WHEN Question Time first came to Scotland in 2023, it landed in Glasgow. A range of topics were discussed but the most notable and divisive on the night focused on Scotland’s gender reforms.

Appearing on the show was trans woman India Willoughby, who clashed with an audience member who told her that “you can’t change sex”.

Following this, Willoughby said she felt like she had attended her own “hanging,” describing her experience as being akin to an episode of Life On Mars.

Writing for The National, one audience member spoke of a “poisonous” atmosphere filled with “bigotry”.

The show’s very nature of course means that it will always provoke debate and it should go without saying how crucial this is for any functioning, healthy democracy.

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But why is it that the programme itself, from issues with the format to transparency, attracts such fervent criticism?

Could it be that it’s simply outdated and no longer suits the modern political world or is it just in need of some fresh ideas?

‘A very dated format’

The Sunday National has spoken with two media experts as well as SNP president Michael Russell to ascertain some general feelings about the programme.

Dr Russell Jackson feels the show still has a future for example but for Russell (below), Question Time, which is currently produced by Mentorn, simply doesn’t have a place anymore.

“The concept of putting four or five people in the room and asking them the same questions with an independent moderator sounds fine but politics is much more divisive now,” he explains.

The National:

“I don’t think Question Time recognises how difficult it is to do that now. Even with the best will in the world it’s difficult to deliver in the current circumstances.

“And that’s not the BBC’s fault, that’s the fault of how politics has changed. If you take the parallel and you look at presidential debates for example, it’s all just noise and shouting.

“The idea that there is an audience that could be persuaded about something is for the birds. We need some new thinking about how political television takes place and I’m not sure how much shelf life this has left.”

Reflecting on his own experiences of appearing on the show, Russell echoes the thoughts of the audience member in Glasgow, saying it gradually got more “poisonous”.

“You’ve got a formula which in my view doesn’t work and done badly by a broadcasting company that doesn’t understand how to deliver in Scotland.

“I really wouldn’t want to go back on it because there’s no honesty in it.”

Reflecting specifically on the aforementioned Glasgow episode, Russell said the BBC effectively gave itself an impossible task exploring a topic like gender reform on a show like Question Time in the current political environment.

“The BBC has imagined itself to be bound by this formula. I don’t think that’s (gender reform) something that can be explored without great sensitivity so to do it as a spectacle in that way was irresponsible.

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“It’s sensationalist-based and that’s the issue TV politics should be addressing. Maybe things can only be done one-to-one with people contributing thoughtfully rather than spending all their time attacking each other.”

Audience issues

For Russell, one of the key issues was that he never felt there was total honesty on the part of the audience.

Jackson, who is a senior lecturer in communications and public relations at Sheffield Hallam University, previously penned a letter to the BBC questioning how the audience was chosen and saying that being more “open and transparent would help improve trust in Question Time and the BBC more generally”.

He describes himself as a “critical friend” of the BBC, explaining that he believes there’s still a lot of good work on there but that it’s news and politics coverage needs to improve.

According to the BBC’s website, the programme “selects local audiences which reflect a broad range of political views”.

People have to apply to be in the audience and producers then get in touch “to ask questions on their previous voting record and future voting intentions, whether they have party political membership and also how they voted in the EU referendum”.

It says that this means a “range of views are represented” and should staff feel a group is under-represented then “they will promote the programme through relevant local media channels to encourage people to apply”.

However, this hasn’t prevented frustration around transparency which has in part been heightened by social media.

In June, the BBC faced questions over transparency as it was revealed that a question was asked by Cain Griffiths - who had previously stood for Ukip in a by-election.

In June of 2022, Scottish Culture Secretary Angus Robertson (below) faced criticism on the SNP’s record on education and the NHS from a man he said was a “Tory activist” he recognised from his time as the MP for Moray.

The National:

In response, SNP MP John Nicolson posted on Twitter/X: “Wonder what he told the #bbcqt production team on his application?”

 “Without a shadow of a doubt, with all things media and all things political, unless there’s a darn good reason then we need complete transparency in everything,” Jackson says.

“If the right are so concerned about free speech, why not apply it to every phase of life.”

How to fix this?

Issues with transparency are clear, potential solutions to helping improve them less so.

For Jackson, it’s a case of making information about the audience more readily available so people can see the exact make-up based on a variety of different factors.

He explained: “I’d like to see the precise rational and perhaps independent regulation when it comes to the audience.

“How did they vote in the election, how was that variation decided, what’s the age proportion, what’s the balance between men and women.

“Get BBC Question Time to make the information easily accessible, give a clear presentation of information and inform the audience.”

The SNP president somewhat shares Jackson’s beliefs although transparency issues return him to his stance that the show is simply becoming out of date.

“I think we’re past the time of claiming an audience is neutral. Off the top of my head, maybe the audience should be as partisan as the panel,” he explains.

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“In other words, everyone has to put their cards on the table. It may well be that a strong, good independent chair questioning people is better done without an audience. They could perhaps be at home and not in the studio.

“I’m no longer actively involved in television, but I know a format that no longer works and that’s what I see in Question Time.”

Chairing issues

In his letter to the BBC, Jackson tallied the amount of time each panellist had been given to speak on immigration on a show broadcast from Rugby on February 16.

According to his analysis, immigration minister Robert Jenrick spoke for 10 minutes while every other panellist – Ruth Wishart, Ian Hislop, Lionel Shriver and Stephen Kinnock – all spoke for no longer than four minutes.

Jackson conceded that it was “perhaps understandable” that Jenrick was given longer, especially given the question was directly related to UK Government policy.

The minister was also challenged on his comments more than once by chair Fiona Bruce.

“I’m really not convinced it is the format of the show that’s particularly wrong. It’s a longstanding programme (first airing in 1979) and the format has remained relatively unchanged.

“One of the biggest things I noticed was how long everyone was allowed to speak and there might be a bit of an imbalance but on this occasion it was so brutally obvious.”

Incidentally, the episode which formed the basis of Jackson’s letter was the same show in which an English audience was asked if they were supportive of independence.

The National: The SNP have issued a response to Fiona Bruce's interruptions on Question Time

Moreover, there have been other instances where people have taken issue with Bruce’s chairing of the programme, most notably during a show in Fort William featuring Scottish Government Cabinet member Mairi McAllan (above).

The SNP hit out at Bruce’s “constant interruptions” with the figures suggesting that McAllan was interrupted more than any other panellist.

A number of other figures within the party, including depute leader Keith Brown, took to social media to express their discontent with Bruce’s chairing.

BBC response

In response to Jackson's letter, a spokesperson for the BBC told the Sunday National: "Question Time facilitates lively debate where a range of topics dominating the news agenda can be discussed by people and politicians from across the political spectrum.

"The chair provides a critical role in challenging and scrutinising guests, while encouraging a robust discussion with due impartiality – this is not something we think can be measured by a crude metric of time alone.

"Audiences and guests are always selected in accordance with our guidelines on fairness and impartiality, and we take weekly judgements to ensure our whole panel represents a broad range of views in British public life.

"In addition we aim to ensure there is an appropriate range of perspectives in our audiences across the series. In judging electoral support, we take account of different sorts of elections around the UK, as well as robust and consistent trends in polling; but we assess that in line with OFCOM’s view that greater weight should be placed on how people have voted in actual elections, as against how voting intentions are perceived in opinion polls.”

Changing with the times

“Can it continue? Probably. Should it continue? No. It’s played out and it’s finished.”

It’s clear that for the SNP president, Question Time simply doesn’t have a place anymore and he stresses that there needs to be a focus on a programme as much about informing people as it is about entertainment.

However, Mills, a senior lecturer at Aston University and chair of the Media Reform Coalition (MRC), thinks the programme still has a role to play.

The MRC is a group which fights for a “democratic and accountable” media. A section of the website titled “A People’s BBC and Channel 4” notes: “We would all be worse off without the BBC – but for it to truly serve the public, it has to change.”

“In my view, the model of politicians interacting with the public in a forum is a good one,” Mills says.

“So long as it’s well managed, it’s a much healthier model than say getting a few pundits from the BBC itself or from think tanks or wherever and get them to discuss the politics of the day.”

He adds that in an age of politics dominated by social media that “everything will always be contested”.

“That idea of having a public debate about political issues, I don’t see how you can disagree with that. If you agree with democracy and that politics should be a collective process, obviously the media should be a place for information but also somewhere that ideas get to be aired and people can develop an understanding of what exists in society.”

Furthermore, despite Jackson’s misgivings about the programme, he says that, away from news and politics, he believes there’s a lot of good content.

On Question Time specifically, he sides more with Mills than he does with Russell, believing that there is still hope for the future.

“I do think they should retain Question Time but it needs to adapt and change with the times because there is still a desperate need for that public interaction.

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“People can help to hold politicians to account and sometimes you’ll get an audience member who might challenge the dominant narrative.”

The show hasn’t been to Scotland since that night in Fort William with the show only returning towards the end of September after parliamentary recess ended.

According to the current calendar, it will next be in Scotland on December 14 in Kelso so there’s still a number of shows to go before it comes north of the Border again.

It is worth noting that a location is still to be chosen however for the show set to air on November 23.

Whatever happens between now and then though, there’s no denying that the show famous for asking questions is facing a few of its own.