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Question Time has become a bear pit – I nearly walked off the show

Iain Dale (right) on Question Time
Iain Dale (right) on Question Time Credit: BBC

In 15 years of political TV punditry it had never occurred to me to walk out of a show, live on air. But it nearly happened on last Thursday’s Question Time.

The thought flitted through my mind as, yet again, the other panellists talked over each other and I was barely allowed to get a sentence out without being interrupted.

As Ian Blackford, the SNP Westminster leader, interrupted me for the third time after I had barely uttered a word, I threw up my hands and blustered: “What on earth is the point of debating if this is what you’re going to do?” Fiona Bruce, the show’s new host, intervened and I was eventually allowed to speak for about 45 seconds without interruption.

Don’t get me wrong, interrupting is all part of the cut and thrust of political debate. It has its place, but we all know the rules of the game. With the exception of Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrat, all of the other panellists took interrupting to an extreme, which made parts of the show unwatchable.

Since the end of that show, I have had around 400 emails, and gained an extra 10,000 Twitter followers. There has been widespread outrage at the lamentable standard of debate on the show, and how it was handled.

The truth is that Question Time is not alone in suffering from this. The level of public discourse in our society is at its lowest point for decades. Politicians think it is quite acceptable to call each other “liars” on TV, and Emily Thornberry, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, did this within half a minute in her first answer.

Iain Dale on Question Time Credit: BBC

There are ways of calling out mendacious politicians without calling them “liars”. Fiona Bruce didn’t see fit to pick her up on that, yet did challenge Kwasi Kwarteng, the Tory MP, later, asking him: “Are you calling Emily dishonest?”

Question Time has become a bear pit, where the audience behaves in a way it would never have done 10 years ago. I don’t want to return to an age of deference, but the bear-baiting and insults that go from audience to panel and back are rendering such programmes unwatchable for many.

I hark back to the days when the likes of Tony Benn, Clare Short, Shirley Williams and Norman Tebbit would debate robustly but with respect for each other and the rules of the show. Perhaps we need to take a leaf out of the new Norwegian political TV show Einig? (Agreed?) where panellists are obliged to be polite to each other, not interrupt, listen and then engage. It could happen here if we had a broadcaster brave enough to embrace the format.

In the meantime, the Question Time producers should think about the number of panellists they have. Last week, there were six of us, rather than the usual five, and it was always going to be difficult for everyone to get a fair hearing.

In the end, the Remainers, and especially Emily Thornberry, got the lion’s share of the airtime. Thornberry spoke for 10 minutes 34 seconds in 15 interventions, two of which were more than two minutes long, whereas I spoke for four minutes 33 seconds in eight interventions.

The Brexiteers on the panel spoke for a total of 15 minutes 22 seconds, while Remainers spoke for 23 minutes 48 seconds. The audience got seven minutes 46 seconds, of which Brexit-supporting audience members spoke for all of two minutes 34 seconds.

Having said that, while Richard Tice, the Brexit Party MEP, and I spoke the least of all the six panellists, speaking only when you have something to say can have its merits. I deliberately tried not to take part in the orgy of talking over other people.

I would love to see just four panellists on Question Time occasionally. I suspect the audience would prefer it, and there would be a little more light shed on issues, and perhaps a little less heat. And, please, never have a panel of six again.

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC radio; @iaindale

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