There have been 1,369 editions of BBC1’s Question Time since its launch under Sir Robin Day in September 1979, and it has an estimated weekly audience of 2.4m in its 10.40pm slot on Thursdays.
David Dimbleby has announced he is leaving the show after 25 years in the chair, following 10 years by Sir Robin Day (1979-89) and four from Peter Sissons (89-93) – so what next?
Already, there is a list of potential successors, ranging from Kirsty Wark to Victoria Derbyshire and Huw Edwards. But almost certainly, it won’t be a man. This is now the era of BBC ‘diversity’/feminism quota box-ticking, outlined here, and no woman has yet been the show’s permanent host – though back in the mid-1980s, Nationwide host Sue Lawley deputised regularly for Sir Sir Robin Day.
Already, despite this, the Conservative Commons equalities committee chair Maria Miller has stepped into the frame, warning the BBC that it must appoint a woman.
Woe betide the BBC, therefore, if it appoints a man. And now that it is in the full grip of the ‘quota’ agenda, can the Corporation risk appointing any more a white woman to the role?
This is an organisation where the head of comedy, Shane Williams, said this week at a programme launch that Monty Python – one of the greatest creative hits in television history – would not now be made by the BBC because it was conceived by and starred white Oxbridge graduates.
On that basis, there must only be a handful of candidates for Question Time. Step forward Today presenter Mishal Husain and Samira Ahmed, who hosts the BBC News Channel’s complaints programme Newswatch, after cutting her television teeth on Channel 4 News. So certain is Ms Ahmed that she is in with a shout that she has self-declared her candidacy on Twitter.
Ms Husain has already occupied the Question Time chair briefly, during the debates leading up to the 2017 General Election. Her debut, as is reported here, did not go well. The audience was ram-full of raucous supporters of Jeremy Corbyn and Ms Husain had great difficulty controlling proceedings. She was also loudly heckled – and almost drowned out – when she asked the Labour leader how he would pay for his (uncosted) child care policies.
The BBC thus has a serious dilemma of its own making in its hands. Quotas are a serious bind and indeed are likely to stifle creativity and excellence in programme-making.
In reality,however, women have been centre stage in the production of Question Time since its inception. The first editor was a formidable feminist, Barbara Maxwell, called by Sir Robin ‘the flame haired temptress’. Her reign at the helm lasted 14 years.
The story of the pressures faced by Sir Robin from Ms Maxwelll is told in Peter Sissons in his autobiography and summarised here. From the outset she worked to ensure that women panellists were a regular part of the show, often irrespective – Sir Robin believed – of whether they had enough experience to be able to deliver under the unique pressures the show generated.
When Peter Sissons – lured to the BBC in 1989 from ITN to be Sir Robin’s successor – took over the show, Ms Maxwell made it clear to him that the female quota system must continue. When Sissons objected, she made his life in the chair as awkward and uncomfortable as possible for him by the choice of sometimes unsuitable and incompetent female panellists.
Sissons says he left the show four years later when the BBC decided Question Time would be put out to independent production. The team appointed was all-female and – Sissons alleged – intensified the pressure on him.
Sue Lawley was then lined up as his successor, but ruled herself out because the BBC insisted that there must be a three-legged audition process involving David Dimbleby, Jeremy Paxman and Ms Lawley. Although she was the clear favourite, Ms Lawley refused to take part because, it is claimed, she thought as an established BBC presenter, it was beneath her, so Dimbleby was appointed.
The point of all this? Despite its long history of female involvement and the encouragement of participation by ‘minorities’, Question Time seems now destined to have a host who will be chosen on the basis of quota-related box-ticking rather than his or her capacity to perform in a particularly tough hot seat.
Another issue here is whether the programme is actually past its sell-by date. The format of voters confronting politicians was innovative in 1989 but almost 40 years on it has become hackneyed and formulaic. As is argued here, it has arguably become a platform for platitudes, a performance vehicle for those who can blather best. Rather than illuminating the political process, it generates mainly obfuscation.
Not only that, as the Institute of Economic Affairs argues here, it has become deeply biased, especially since the EU referendum, with panels heavily weighted towards the Remain side.
The BBC has a programme budget of billions. It is high time it started to use it generate innovative news and current affairs programmes rather than hobbling along with the tired relics of another age.