In step with perception and criticism of the rest of the media, discussion around Question Time guest selection usually revolves around whether it has a “right wing” or “left wing” bias. These accusations are relatively comfortable for the BBC as they can resort to an increasingly common defence: “well, we’re getting flak from both sides so must be somewhere in the middle!”
Left and right is also allowed for in the official statement of the BBC on QT guest selection: “Question Time aims to select a panel with a broad range of views, knowledge and experience” according to the programme’s official website.
What this statement doesn’t allow for, in terms of a “range of views, knowledge and experience”, is that the overwhelming majority of QT guests represent the elite, which hugely limits the range of views, knowledge and experience presented.
What Do We Mean By “Elite”?
Elite is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “a group or class of people seen as having the most power and influence in a society, especially on account of their wealth or privilege.”
There is a millionaire on most editions of Question Time, either a representative of the business community or a politician (the current salary for an MP is £81,932 and most have business interests beyond this). The majority of other guests earn significantly more than the average 2020 UK income of £26,520 (source ONS).
We classify elite annual income as £68,000 per year or above, the median income listed by the Office of National Statistics for the wealthiest 10% in the UK. It seems reasonable to conclude that individuals with this level of income (which correlates, according to ONS, with an even greater discrepancy in overall wealth courtesy of property and share investments among this group) will have notably different economic concerns and priorities to those who earn around the £26,520 average.
In addition to this, other features which mark QT panellists as elite recur. For instance, a disproportionately high number of guests have attended educational institutions which indicate a privileged background such as private schools, Oxford and Cambridge. Many are Lords or have other honours or titles bestowed on them by unelected bodies.
Is it accurate to suggest that a panel consisting primarily of individuals in the wealthiest 10% of the UK, many of whom attended educational institutions or possess titles that reflect status rather than ability, represent a “broad range of views, knowledge and experience”? It seems unlikely. But first we must accurately address whether Question Time does have an elite selection bias.
We have developed a scoring system to apply to Question Time guests to gain a sense of how elite each weekly panel selection is. We score each guest either 0 (non-elite) or 1 (elite) in five categories: Income, Education, Connections, Honours/Titles, Political/Economic Views. Each guest achieves an overall elite rating out of 5, which is added to the scores of the other guests then divided by the number of guests to provide an overall rating for that week’s panel.
Fiona Bruce, the presenter of the show, is a key figure in terms of directing debate and allocating panellists’ speaking time so is always included in the calculation for that week’s show. She is included in the example below to let you see how the scoring system works!
If we can demonstrate over a sustained period of time that Question Time’s panels are overwhelmingly elite, it raises significant questions about the show and its role in a democracy.
Not only would the show fail to meet its own target of selecting panels with “with a broad range of views, knowledge and experience,” but Question Time could be seen to naturalise or advance a two-tiered democracy (or elitocracy), where elite groups lead, advance and set the limits on discussions, and the general public are confined to a role in the margins.
Indeed, the dynamic in the Question Time studio – “elite” panellists elevated above the audience, who are only allowed token contributions – offers a powerful visual metaphor for a two-tiered democracy. Is it time for the BBC to rebrand the show and ensure that the voices of people on low incomes, with views formed independently of a privileged and interconnected elite, are suitably represented?