I stopped watching BBC Question Time regularly a number of years ago. I occasionally tuned in to the odd episode, perhaps if someone I knew personally or admired was on the panel, and I watched David Dimbleby’s last stand. Generally, the BBC’s flagship panel discussion programme provided more heat than light, and gave viewers little insight into the events of the previous seven days. I rarely came away from watching an episode feeling I had learned something I did not know before it started.
The programme felt as if it had become a parody of itself – the Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse version of Question Time, but played out every week, for real. The politicians would argue via some pre-planned lines pertaining to the episode’s location, the audience would clap whoever blamed the Tories and wanted to spend money on something, the comedian would not know much about policy but make a joke to cover it up, and Dimbleby would just tell everyone off.
But it is intriguing to see what Fiona Bruce might bring to the table, so I made a point of tuning in last night for her first programme in charge. Of course, many of the classic elements remain. There was the leftie comedian (Nish Kumar, of whose work I’m actually a fan) and the audience members who demanded naively that all the politicians should just work together.
There was something different about the programme, however. Bruce seemed to bring a new calmness to proceedings. The debate was intense, but the overall temperature appeared to have been turned down a bit. There was space for the politicians to actually respond to each other and few moments of the panel just shouting incoherently.
Bruce was friendly and charming, but also as forensic as one would expect of a news presenter with her experience. She pushed Labour’s Emily Thornberry very hard on her party’s Brexit position and support for another EU referendum. Bruce was not successful in getting a clear answer from the Shadow Foreign Secretary, but her persistence did expose the fundamental conceit that sits at the heart of Labour’s approach to Brexit.
In fact, the new chair gave everyone on the panel enough rope to hang themselves. Early on, for instance, she let Tory Deputy Chairman James Cleverley declare how in control of Brexit the Government was, before cooly asking: “If this is the government in control of the process, what does not being in control look like?” Coming at the end of yet another chaotic week in Westminster, that stung.
And it wasn’t just the politicians. Without having to resort to haranguing, Bruce got Melanie Phillips to publicly wriggle back on her previous declaration that Nigel Farage should be the Prime Minister. The columnist had to concede that she had come to that opinion “in a moment of high emotion”.
Too often during the Dimbleby years, it appeared that he believed everyone was tuning in to watch him. That may be unfair, but it is how it frequently came across. That perception limited what the audience could learn from watching the programme. Bruce took a different approach. She joked with, and got good reactions from, the audience, but never tried to take away from what the panellists were saying.
Indeed, if I were to make a criticism, it is that it took too long to hear from every member of the panel because she let Thornberry dominate far too many of the early exchanges. However, that is arguably better than not forcing her to explain Labour’s Brexit position and letting her off the hook.
All-in-all then it was a hugely positive start. In fact, there is a real risk that Fiona Bruce might just have made Question Time watchable once again.