Here’s a question – in the olden days, when everyone was busy with spending their oodles of credit and figured that MPs were dirty but hey, we’re all rich together, did anyone heckle Question Time? I’m not the show’s biggest fan or most avid watcher but I can’t remember it happening nearly as often (every week) as it has been recently. I think it, most clearly this week from Birmingham where a lot of the audience were forced to disclose job links to the car industry, shows that there is a serious lack of opportunities for angry, potentially unemployed people to shout at MPs from the comfort of a warm TV studio. Flippant phrasing? Yes. A gap in the current market? Absolutely, and an important one.
The format of Question Time is great for calmer situations – you have a panel of professional politicians and other speaking heads who sit in front of an audience who ask questions of them. It’s great if all you have is a vague urge to pick a group of people’s brains on a bit of current affairs but, to reveal some underlying ennui, it’s a bit of an insubstantial program at the base of it all, a great deal of posturing, a bit of slap talk and they all say they hate the BNP if it comes up (well, yeah but doesn’t everyone? Only anonymous people on the street get to like the BNP) but it’s not where work gets done. It’s also about the only one that people are invited into. Paxman et al don’t interview in front of a studio audience, certainly not one that can ask questions, and politicians are hard enough to get a hold of even before they’re elevated into positions of extra power. The fabled “MP’s surgery” is a fairly rare event at the best of times and Ministers (the kind of people you want to be able to get a hold of, even just to give them a good shake) may get a regular common or garden MP from a neighbouring constituency to do their surgeries for them, because they’re busy Ministering.
Heckling is a sign of the emotion that’s running through the citizenry. It’s also shockingly out of place in a show like Question Time for a fairly good reason – you can’t actually do much when a member of the audience is shouting out. It’s why stand up comedians have to deal with hecklers quickly and effectively to continue with their set. It’s why there’s a Speaker in the House of Commons. If people are shouting out it means that other people, who are waiting their turn patiently, can’t be heard. It’s rude and it spoils things for other people. That’s the huge, huge downside. The problem is that there’s no other obvious place for people to do this. There needs to be a greater level of public integration with the process – there’s no end of ways to talk to a politician if you’re a lobbyist or retain the services of one or, heaven forbid, you’re a politician yourself but it’s a bit of a black art if you’re not in the right circle. This is really something that needs addressed. I’ve been very impressed with the “They Work For You” site which basically aims to provide a connection between voter and MPs to show what they’re doing with their weekdays and to generally make the whole thing quite convenient, I’ve actually got an email alert set up for whenever Lord Hope of Craighead speaks(1), basically just because you can do that.
This is the sort of thing that’s needed for the current situation – a nice, convenient and personalised route to talk to the elected representatives that are nominally acting on your behalf but are apparently more likely to be huddled under their desk in their second home hoping their moat can keep the Daily Telegraph away. Routes do exist, but are they well publicised?
The truly hard bitten cynic in me wonders if people who shout out on TV are shouting out… on TV in the same way that, in a period of decreasing church attendance, Songs of Praise always seems to find the really full one every week and in that case, pointing them to surgeries and phone numbers and addresses and other means of meeting and talking to a real politician in a quieter setting won’t actually appeal to them because it’s more effective but it’s not TV but that’s just celebrity aspiration gone mad and I hope that’s not what’s lead to this rise in shouting on Question Time.
(1) Only when he speaks in the House of Lords, obviously. Not in general.