Audience Fail on Any Questions

BY JIM BROWNE

When you reach my ripe old age, Friday nights are not what they used to be. Friday nights are reduced to babysitting the grandchildren or a game of Gin Rummy with the Mrs. Occasionally I escape and potter down to the White Hart for a couple but Friday is also shopping day and I’ve already had a drink (I sneak one in whilst banned by my wife from the supermarket).

This last Friday evening I happened to be bored and so flicked through the radio stations to see whether there was anything decent on. And I hit the start of Any Questions on BBC Radio 4 from Edwinstree Middle School in Buntingford, Hertfordshire, with the businessman and political donor Arron Banks, ex-Labour adviser turned stand-up comic Ayesha Hazarika, former Chancellor of the Exchequer Lord Lamont and the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer John McDonnell MP.

I have a lot of time for thoroughly decent Jonathan Dimbleby, who gloriously stumbles through his broadcasts but often manages to find pearls of scoops at the same time. I had never heard of Ayesha Hazarika, I still associate Lamont with the ERM fiasco, think John McDonnell is a dangerous buffoon and know little about Arron Banks except that he has large pockets and is prepared to have a punt on the UKIP lunatic asylum.

So, I sat back with a cup of tea and listened in. There is a podcast available here of the show I tuned into.

First to speak – about the Labour Party’s disaster in the Copeland by-election – was Lamont. He spoke well and thoughtfully, explaining what an obvious disaster Corbyn is for Labour and how the Tory Government had a lot to be getting on with on the Brexit front and were enjoying the freedom and space a lack of opposition presented them with. No claps from the audience.

Second to speak was Ayesha Hazarika. I was worried about what she was saying as she’s a Muslim and I presumed that the audience would not be that keen on listening to a Muslim given the current national mood in Britain and Europe around Muslims. But her fairly tame opening remarks received a surprisingly hearty round of applause from the Any Questions audience. I was pleased for her – maybe they had missed Lamont’s speech and an opportunity to clap. I guessed that maybe the clapping was because she presented herself as a comedian – nothing to do with her ex Labour adviser days. So I listened on…

Third to speak was John McDonnell. He rattled on for 5 minutes – way longer than any of the other panel members. Dull, turgid stuff – defending embattled Corbyn to the hilt yet sounding as depressed about the disaster of Copeland as if he was at home amongst comrades who cared and felt empathy for his position. He was finally interrupted by Dimbleby but the floor did not then go to Banks as it should have done – it went back to Hazarika to respond to McDonnell’s response with yet more fluff. Yet more clapping.

I was already fed up by this point. I’d been listening to over 14 minutes of a 46-minute programme and still not heard Arron Banks’ voice. What was this? A Labour Party Political Broadcast?

Then, finally, at 14 minutes and twenty-four seconds into the programme, Banks has to butt in to get his say. He accuses John McDonnell of “being Westminster” after McDonnell blamed the public’s distrust of Westminster for the Copeland loss.

I wait for a clap.

I thought that deserved a clap.

Silence.

Banks continued. Then came to a close after giving his answers to the question. Again, he had spoken well. Result?

Silence.

Not even a solitary clap.

I listened a while longer and more of the same from the audience, who ignored Banks and Lamont – I felt embarrassed and angry. So, I switched off.

The MP for Buntingford where Any Questions was held on Friday is Sir Oliver Heald. The constituency of North Hertfordshire he represents has a Conservative majority of 55.4%. The nearest challenger – Labour – received 18.9% of the vote.

So why did the audience blank both Lord Lamont and Arron Banks while clapping the Labour-linked panellists? They are clearly not representative of the area.

It’s a great shame that, in spite of many complaints from the British public, the BBC has as yet failed to solve its live audience problems. They need to get a grip or we’re off.

Both across Question Time and Any Questions, the audience can’t be trusted. Time to hand pick them so they are representative even if that means bringing in a few ringers from each party. The current audience entrance criteria is wrecking these live shows.

The BBC, rightly or wrongly, are creating a false popularity for unpopular views and they need to find an answer to this problem pronto or droves of viewers and listeners will simply drift away and find other channels which provide a fairer and more representative product.

Wake up, BBC. Or perish.