BBC's Question Time: My Experience Questioning Politicians in Front of a Global Audience BY ELIZABETH BRATTON

July 18 2020

Have you ever wondered how the audiences on political panel shows actually find themselves there? Before the pandemic hit, I was fortunate enough to be one of those people, and the process was far more relaxed than I ever imagined!

The BBC’s question time is a topical debate filmed each week at a different location in the UK. Members of the public, from varying backgrounds, may be accepted into the audience of around 200, and given the opportunity to ask politicians and other prominent figures questions about the matters which concern them. Once I found out that the panel show was set to be hosted in the local area on the 6th of February, I knew I had to apply. Arriving at the application page, I had to fill in a range of questions: Who I would vote for in an election, if I was politically engaged, and whether I would have voted for or against Brexit. I explained that I would probably vote for the Liberal Democrats or the Labour Party, and detailed my political writing on sites such as RevNow.

It was around 10 past 7 the evening before the show was due to take place that I received the phone call. I initially ignored the unsaved number that flashed upon my mobile screen, expecting it to be a scam call. However, once the landline rang, I sprinted downstairs, because, firstly, nobody ever rings the house phone, and, secondly, I was still clinging onto hope that I might get my first real taste of the world of politics. The call lasted maybe two minutes: the details I had provided online were confirmed, and, somewhat unexpectedly, I was asked to provide two questions for the panel on the spot. It seemed I had been accepted onto the show before even answering the questions. However, I suspect the interview process was to ensure that the producers were aware of the audience members’ backgrounds, and to pre-empt the direction of the debate.

Fast forward less than twenty four hours, I was lined up outside a hall at the back of a local pub. After providing proof of ID, we were given two cards on which we were to write out any relevant questions we had for the panel. Mine were:

  1. Boris Johnson banned certain journalists from a briefing this week. Do these Trump-like tactics foreshadow an attack on press freedom?
  2. Could a lack of trust in politicians and their policies contribute towards heightened levels of anxiety amongst students?

After we had completed our question cards, presenter Fiona Bruce took to a small stage at the back of the room and revealed the itinerary for the evening. Despite appearing somewhat cold or challenging onscreen, she seemed genuinely happy to be standing in front of us all. Naturally, we had all been doing the very British thing of sitting in uncomfortable silence, failing to make small talk, and grimacing at the slightest possibility of conversation with strangers. However, this introduction to the evening certainly sent a ripple of excitement through the room, and suddenly everyone looked a little more enthused.

It took about twenty minutes for everyone to be ushered across the road to the public halls, where the debate was taking place. I was fortunate enough to grab a seat extremely close to the front. To my left, were sat two older women, who, coincidentally enough, I soon discovered were very left-wing in their politics. While many argue that the BBC are biased towards the right, if you were to watch the episode online, it would soon become apparent that almost nobody in the audience would have considered voting Conservative in a million years. This is especially interesting, considering the area I live in is a majority Tory constituency, and has been for as long as I can remember.

It was not long before the panel members made their appearance. Those who would be entertaining us for the evening were journalist Rachel Shabi, acting co-leader of the Liberal Democrats Ed Davey, Secretary of State for Justice Robert Buckland, actor and presenter Adam Pearson, and Labour MP for Walthamstow Stella Creasey.

Throughout the evening, topics such as the early release of terrorists, climate change, Trump’s impeachment trial, and dress codes were discussed. One audience member accused the government of prioritising Brexit over upkeeping the prison system, while others speculated that the country’s current infrastructure is not fit to accommodate electric vehicles. Soon, discussion ensued as to whether or not the media’s coverage of Trump’s trial had “helped or hindered” his campaign. A highlight of this particular conversation was Adam Pearson’s description of the president as a “mud monster”, arguing that “throwing mud at him will make him stronger,”.

I soon decided I would try my luck at asking a question, so I stuck my hand in the air, and, sure enough, I soon found a microphone hovering over my head.

I told the panel, “I’m worried our prime minister is beginning to resemble the man in the White House; in his treatment of minorities, but also press freedom, and how he treated journalists the other day, and refused them entry into a briefing.” This was a question that the panel later returned to, as Buckland deemed there to be little in common between the men apart from hair colour. He described Boris Johnson as a “classical scholar” in opposition to Trump, before immediately switching the topic to focusing on the Democrats and their disorganized caucus in Iowa.

At one particularly controversial moment in the evening, a woman in a cold-shoulder top asked the panel if she was “appropriately dressed” for the occasion. The jibe came after MP Tracy Brabin received criticism for wearing a similar off-the-shoulder shirt in parliament. While Stella Creasey could not believe that such a question had even been asked, other audience members were adamant that such clothing was immodest and did not meet “smart-casual” standards. Pearson joked that he himself “had one of those tops in a size 6”.

Ultimately, it was a fascinating evening, and one that taught me in great detail about the procedures that take place behind the scenes of the television programmes we so regularly take for granted. To be featured on national television was incredible, and certainly a moment I will never forget. However, above all, it was encouraging to witness other young people have the confidence to even sign up for the event in the first place, to actually attend, and ultimately raise their voices for what they believe in. The event certainly furthered my desire to become a journalist, watching politicians’ brain ticks as they are forced to think of answers to (often unpredictable) questions on the spot. I encourage all teenagers to attend any political rallies, debates, panel shows near them, as it might just give you a better insight into who can be trusted, and help you to clarify your views. While you may not be able to vote yet, there is no harm in establishing your political standpoint, and even doing so on the globe stage.

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