Was Question Time Biased Against Diane Abbott?
Question Time is the BBC’s flagship political programme in which a panel, comprised mainly of politicians and journalists, discuss a range of issues proposed by the audience. It started in 1979 and has been hosted by four different people across its history, most recently Fiona Bruce who replaced David Dimbleby.
Its history is not without controversy. Most notably, the programme sparked outrage in 2009 when it invited then-BNP leader, Nick Griffin, to join the panel. This was the first time a far-right party had been represented on the programme. It set a precedent regarding what approach the BBC, a neutral and impartial organisation, must take towards the extreme ends of the political spectrum and its representatives.
Recent controversies, in particular, the issue of balancing pro-Remain and pro-Leave audience members and panellists, as well as the treatment of opposition parties and figures, have stirred the concern of bias even further. The fallout from Diane Abbott’s participation in a recent episode of Question Time has prompted discussions about racism, sexism, and bias residing within the programme and the BBC at large. That is an issue I will discuss in this opinion piece.
The Case of Diane Abbott
Diane Abbott has appeared on Question Time at least 29 times since the 1980s, according to her office. Following her most recent appearance on the programme, the Labour Party had made a formal complaint after an audience member claimed that before the programme was on-air, Fiona Bruce made inappropriate comments that legitimised racism. Further to this, during the programme, Abbott was interrupted more times than any other panellist. Fiona Bruce also supported an incorrect claim made by Isabel Oakeshott, who said that Labour was behind in the polls when in fact they are on level-pegging, if not slightly ahead. It should be noted that since this episode was aired, the BBC has apologised for failing to fact-check the poll data, but state that no panellist was treated unfairly. Labour state that they want the BBC to release recordings of the show before it was aired, to definitively prove whether Fiona Bruce made inappropriate remarks and stirred up the audience to be antagonistic.
Having watched the episode, I believe that Diane Abbott was not treated fairly in terms of bias that was shown during the programme. Fiona Bruce immediately supported Isabel Oakeshott’s claims about the polls, which was unacceptable because she should have been briefed sufficiently about that. And while we cannot definitively prove either way if Fiona Bruce did make inappropriate remarks, it is still concerning that negativity and hostility towards Diane Abbott might have been stirred up. If there are recordings available, the BBC must release them now and clarify the situation.
However, I do not think it was as extreme as a situation that is legitimising racism and sexism. In my opinion, I do not think that Diane Abbott even did that well on the panel, regardless of the controversies. In the time she did have to comment, some of it was vague and non-committal. She responded to an audience member who questioned why Labour was not backing a second referendum that such an idea is on the agenda, as agreed at the Labour Party Conference last year, but did not explicitly state where the party is heading. Moreover, she made a comment that I do not agree with, specifically this – “Unlike the Prime Minister, we [the Labour Party] are prepared to be flexible on everything.” I don’t agree with this when neither side is speaking to each other. Labour does not want to negotiate with the government so long as they do not strike off no-deal. I agree with the logic behind opposing no-deal because it would be a huge setback for this country, but in principle, Labour is not negotiating on this at all and for anything constructive to come out of Brexit, however slim that might seem these days, the party leaders need to continue talking. The majority of the blame of this deadlock must go to Theresa May for her stubbornness to abandon her deal, but I cannot look past Labour and their failings to speak as often as they should do in order to get the best possible deal.
In short, this episode was disappointing in terms of the failings of the BBC. It did show bias during the programme because it failed to have basic fact-checking, it was unable to ensure a sufficiently constructive atmosphere in the audience (jeering at Diane is not going to achieve anything), and because of that, it is in need of structural change. Improved fact-checking, greater transparency in the designation of the audience, are among some of the changes they should introduce.
Was it biased? To some extent, yes. The reasons are perhaps more nuanced than I provide, but it’s because of the poor fact-checking, the rather negative response from the audience towards Diane Abbott herself, and indeed the seemingly biased angle towards pro-Leave, despite the awareness of clear division in the country at the moment over this issue. But was it an indication of racism and sexism?
Personally, I do not agree. I don’t think Diane Abbott deserved the level of jeering and frequency of interruptions she received, but I do not think it was racism. She did not do a brilliant job, either. In future, I hope the BBC make the necessary changes to be an impartial organisation, wherever and whatever the situation it may be.