I’m a BBC supporter and I appreciate everyone at the BBC and beyond who makes an important contribution to society in helping to maintain the BBC’s public service ethos and hard-won reputation for providing “impartial, high-quality and distinctive output and services which inform, educate, and entertain”.
I’m writing to raise concerns – articulated and shared by thousands on social media – about BBC Question Time.
My concerns are threefold.
Poor and biased chairing
First, Fiona Bruce’s chairing of BBC Question Time is, at best, unacceptably poor.
As an example of this, I want to bring to your attention the hugely disproportionate amount of time Conservative MP Robert Jenrick was given to answer the audience question on the controversial issue of immigration on the 16/02/2023 episode.
I timed how long Ms Bruce allowed each panellist to speak on immigration:
- Ruth Wishart – 30 seconds
- Ian Hislop – 2 minutes
- Lionel Shriver – 2 minutes
- Stephen Kinnock – 3 minutes and 30 seconds
- Robert Jenrick – 10 minutes.
While it is perhaps understandable that the UK immigration minister may be given a little more time to articulate and attempt to justify government immigration policies and rhetoric, allowing such a long answer is totally unacceptable.
Audience political demographic
My second concern is that at the beginning of each episode, Ms Bruce states that the live audience “reflects electoral support for political parties”, depending on where particular episodes are held e.g., in England, Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland.
This claim is highly ambiguous as it does not make clear if the audience reflects current voter intention or reflects the voting electorate or the whole UK electorate at the last general election – if the latter, the audience should ‘reflect’ the fact that just 29% of the electorate voted for the Conservatives in 2019.
Panellists, audience members, and viewers are thus deprived of vital information about the composition of the live audience, along with the criteria for audience selection. Being open and transparent about this would help improve trust in Question Time and the BBC more generally.
My final concern is about the selection and political balance of Question Time panellists.
As the graphic below shows, there is a clear and well-evidenced bias toward panellists from right-leaning media organisations.
It is unacceptable that Question Time has a hugely disproportionate number of panellists from foreign, non-dom, or overseas-based billionaire-owned or multimillionaire-funded explicitly right-wing media organisations, including: Rupert Murdoch’s Times, Times Radio, TalkTV and TalkRadio; Frederick Barclay’s Telegraph and Spectator; Jonathan Harmsworth’s Mail; Dubai-based investors’ GB News; and the opaquely funded Spiked (totalling 28 panellists during 2022–2023).
In stark contrast, during 2022 and 2023 there have been just six panellists from ‘centrist’ or left-leaning media organisations (Vice, Private Eye, Guardian, Mirror, and Novara Media).
It is also notable that despite widespread industrial unrest, just six representatives of unions have appeared during 2022–2023, compared to at least 13 businesspeople.
And when we look at non-Westminster, Holyrood, or Senedd politicians, we see ten right-wing panellists, including former Conservative Party MPs, advisors and peers, and former Brexit Party MEPs, compared to just three Labour mayors and one former Labour Party advisor.
BBC appointments and Conservative Party links
This demonstrable and deeply concerning right-wing bias comes at a time when the BBC is already struggling with widespread perceptions of bias, has had a 20% drop in trust in its national news output over the last five years, and is suffering significant reputational harm due to the controversial appointment of Rishi Sunak’s ex-boss and Conservative Party donor Richard Sharp to the influential role of BBC chair. Sharp had zero media experience prior to his appointment, and there is ongoing concern over his decision to not declare his role in facilitating a loan of £800,000 to Boris Johnson, prior to his appointment.
There are also concerns about the appointment of BBC director general Tim Davie, who stood as a councillor for the Conservative Party in 1993 and 1994 and was deputy chairman of the Hammersmith and Fulham Conservative Party in the 1990s.
There are further concerns over the recent appointment of ex-GB News editorial director John McAndrew to the role of Director of BBC News programmes. And there are longstanding and significant concerns over the influence of former director of comms at No 10 for Theresa May, Robbie Gibb, a BBC non-executive director since 2021, who helped found GB News, and who sought to block Jess Brammar’s appointment to a role overseeing BBC News channels.
Political polarisation and dangerous rhetoric
At a time when political polarisation is harming UK democracy, when grotesque ‘invasion’ rhetoric is being shamelessly normalised by senior Conservatives, other right-wing politicians, and far-right organisations, and when there has been a steep and concerning rise in UK far-right activism and terrorist incidents, the BBC has a vital role to play in ensuring that it does not fuel polarisation further, for example by giving a hugely disproportionate amount of airtime to right-wing panellists on Question Time.
Given there are hundreds of thousands of articulate, well-informed, considered, nuanced, and expert voices, I find it both depressing and frankly absurd that the same small pool of often deliberately provocative and entirely predictable voices are continually invited onto Question Time.
The 16 non-MP panellists with the highest number of appearances on Question Time in the 21st century evidences a preference for outspoken, provocative, divisive, controversial, and often ideologically extreme right-wing guests (12 of the 16 are explicitly right-wing):
- Rod Liddle – 9
- Max Hastings – 9
- Camilla Tominey – 9
- Kate Andrews – 11
- Tim Stanley – 12
- Isabel Oakeshott – 13
- Fraser Nelson – 4
- David Starkey – 12
- Bonnie Greer – 13
- Ian Hislop – 14
- Julia Hartley Brewer – 17
- Janet Street-Porter – 19
- Peter Hitchens – 23
- Piers Morgan – 24
- Melanie Phillips – 28
- Nigel Farage – 35
Is this in the public interest?
The evidence suggests that either the desire to drive audience figures and engagement is now overly dependent upon inviting guests who specialise in generating polarising controversy, rather than engaging in nuanced respectful debate, or the people responsible for deciding which panellists are invited onto Question Time have a conscious or unconscious right-wing bias.
The BBC’s stated mission is “to act in the public interest, serving all audiences through the provision of impartial, high-quality and distinctive output and services which inform, educate and entertain”. These foundational principles are honourable and as needed today as ever before.
Britain needs the BBC. Along with the National Health Service it is one of the few genuinely unifying public institutions we have left, and along with the NHS, it is the envy of the world.
The BBC helps to protect and enhance Britain’s global reputation, and it helps hold the country together, especially, as we have seen over the last few years, in times of crisis – and Britain currently faces multiple crises.
Please accept my comments in the spirit they are meant, and please try to get responses to my concerns from the Question Time director, producers, editors, presenter, and production companies.
Dr Russell Jackson