If fresh insight or stimulating discussion is what you’re after, BBC’s Question Time is likely to disappoint. The only relief from the stifling conformity of the Westminster consensus is the occasional non-politician (Owen Jones, Billy Bragg or Benjamin Zephaniah, for example). More recently, it has effectively become an almost-weekly audience with Nigel Farage. Many people who would normally be interested in political discussion refuse to watch it at all.
However, it also appears that Question Time has a ‘Welsh problem’. That is that that the panel membership fails to reflect the realities of modern Welsh political life, specifically that from 1999 we have had our own elected government which is responsible for a lot of what touches our everyday lives: most notably health and education.
This anomaly was exposed with brutal clarity in the programme from Newport screened on 24 February this year, when the issue of the NHS in Wales was raised. There followed a discussion between a hostile English Tory MP; a Labour MP from a London constituency, Rushanara Ali, who clearly hadn’t a clue what she was talking about; and a Plaid Westminster MP Elfyn Llwyd, who did know something about Wales, namely, of course, that health is devolved to the Welsh Assembly, none of whose members were on the panel. The remainder of the panel consisted of a food writer and the right-wing London-based journalist Melanie Phillips. We learned nothing from this discussion except, of course, that the BBC, or at least the part of it which commissions Question Time panels, had been caught out in regarding Wales, for these purposes, as a part of England.
If the BBC had read the complaints that must have followed this farce, it took no notice. On 5 June when Question Time was from Llandudno and the issue of the Welsh NHS was unsurprisingly raised again, there was no one from the Welsh government on the panel to answer the critics of that government’s record, nor even an Assembly member from any party to provide an informed contribution. While Labour‘s Liz Kendall (Leicester West) at least attempted a defence of the Welsh NHS (and, later, of Jobs Growth Wales) it should never have been left up to her. We were, however, treated to the buffoonish, sub-UKIP ruminations of the Call Centre’s Nev Wilshire, no doubt invited to give the ratings a boost and provide a ‘bit of fresh air’.
To add insult to injury, a later discussion concerned extra powers for the Welsh Assembly. A call centre boss, a Spectator journalist and three Westminster MPs lazily kicked this topic around for a few minutes, but without a representative of the Assembly or it’s government, the discussion, if you can call it that, smacked of ‘make sure the children aren’t around while the grown-ups are talking’.
Of course, Question Time goes out to a UK audience. However Question Time from Dundee on 23 January featured four panelists, all from Scotland including 3 from the Scottish parliament. Question Time from Falkirk (on 28 November 2013) featured six panelists, all from Scotland including 3 MSPs. When Question Time is in Wales, the audience is likely to be from Wales. They might just ask questions about, well, Wales, and in particular, Welsh health & education policies as well as the various other areas devolved to the Welsh Assembly. It would be useful, to say the least, if someone from our legislative body, were invited. To do otherwise, especially in the context of the regular attacks on the NHS in Wales from Cameron and his front bench, involves giving opponents of Welsh Labour policy in particular and Welsh devolution in general a free run and amounts to an appalling dereliction of the BBC’s duty, on it’s premier current affairs discussion programme, to discuss the affairs of Wales, properly, let alone impartially.
There are a number of possible reasons for this obvious lapse in broadcasting standards. (Since 2009, in thirteen editions that have come from Wales, only nine of the panelists in these programmes have been AMs and with three appearing on a single edition, in 2010, AMs are in fact seen even less frequently on Question Time than first appears). Obvious candidates are oversight, ignorance, metropolitan arrogance, a conscious anti-Welsh bias or the chasing after ratings either by aiming for fireworks at the expense of politics or, as they might see it, scattering a little celebrity stardust onto the programme.
The BBC has previously been criticised for its failure to deal with the reality of Scottish and Welsh devolution, failings which, to some extent, the organisation as a whole has attempted to remedy. However, in general, ignorance of Wales and Welsh affairs, and indeed a lofty disdain for anywhere outside the M25 do not appear to have been cured by the move to Salford. Fear of the Tories over the licence fee and the possible weakening of Ofcom (and resultant media deregulation) promised by Cameron in his election campaign, seems to have produced a move to the right, exemplified, to take two examples, by a notable anti-Palestinian bias in the coverage of the Israeli attack of Gaza and John Humphries’ The Future State of Welfare, which broke the BBC’s own rules on impartiality. More recently, the BBC’s own Robert Peston has accused the BBC of following an agenda set by the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail.
The financial crash of 2008 demonstrated both the metaphorical and literal bankruptcy of the free-market model of capitalism that has prevailed since the early 1980s. The elite pretend that this is not so, blaming everyone but themselves. Even the most modest, reforming half-measures proposed by Ed Miliband are met by inane charges of ‘Marxism’ suggestive of a certain desperation in the protestations that ‘there is no alternative’. In Wales, there is an alternative: community comprehensive schools, a publicly funded, publicly provided NHS, no PFI and a successful interventionist youth employment scheme. In a marriage of metropolitan insularity and right-wing bias, is this an alternative that the BBC would prefer not to be seen to be promoting, because that alternative’s principles are too much of a challenge to the media’s mental laziness, because of the risk of accusations of bias, and because it is in a faraway country of which they know nothing?
Nick Davies is Chair of Welsh Lab0our Grassroots, the network of activists on the left and centre-left of the Labour party in Wales