Media: Good question] Next, please: From Day to Dimbleby . . . everything you wanted to know about Question Time but never had the chance to ask. A viewer's guide by Michael Leapman
Wednesday 15 December 1993
My question is: do you have to be named Dimbleby to host a prestige discussion programme for the BBC?
No, but it helps. It all started with Richard, famous in the Fifties for Panorama and respectful commentaries on regal occasions. His younger son, Jonathan, does Radio 4's Any Questions? and now brother David, star of numerous election specials, has been awarded Question Time.
Any more famous Dimblebys?
Josceline, a successful cookery writer. She is married to David but they live apart. Their son, Henry, works for the Daily Telegraph.
Why so much fuss about who gets the Question Time chair? Is it really that important?
No. It gets an average audience of 4 million - lowish for BBC 1 - and is not helped by constantly being shunted around the Thursday schedule: last week it didn't end until midnight. It has not been required viewing since they pensioned off Sir Robin Day, who used it as a vehicle for his acerbity.
What is it supposed to be for?
Its apologists say it lets the public get at the politicians.
Never has. In Sir Robin's time it let him get at politicians. The questions, on obvious topical issues, are carefully selected and often instigated by the producer. And when the audience does get its say after the party political speeches, the politicians are not obliged to reply, and often don't.
Anyway, what was wrong with Peter Sissons?
Nothing anybody can put a finger on. He did the job competently but Sir Robin's was an impossible act to follow. Peter was judged not to have that elusive charisma.
Does David have it?
Good question. Back in 1983 he was drafted to the ailing early evening programme Nationwide in an attempt to save it, but was quickly dropped because he was thought too solemn for that time of day.
So how was he picked for the Question Time job?
He was made to engage in a secret but well publicised contest with Jeremy Paxman, in which each took charge of a mock programme. Jeremy, the pit bull terrier of Newsnight, had been widely touted for the job but David was judged to have auditioned better.
Presumably he is the safer choice in that he won't ruffle politicians' feathers?
Not necessarily. He was engaged in a famous row after the 1970 election when he made a programme called Yesterday's Men about what the ousted Labour ministers were doing with themselves out of office. Lord Wilson never forgave him, or the BBC.
Has David mellowed since?
Hard to say. Marmaduke Hussey, the chairman of the BBC governors, obviously thought so because he wanted to appoint him director-general in 1987.
Why didn't he?
The other governors wouldn't wear it and they chose Michael Checkland instead. Checkland brought in John Birt as his deputy and the world of broadcasting has never been the same.
Would David have been a good D-G?
Tough, certainly. He runs his family firm's local newspaper group in Richmond, south London, and stood fast against a two- year strike by journalists.
A bit of a Birtist, then?
Certainly he would have got rid of a lot of extraneous BBC people, as Birt has done, but he said this week that he would not have done it as brutally.
What about the Birtist philosophy of news, all that explanatory background and meticulous planning?
David is one of the old guard at the BBC who are instinctively against that. Indeed, he told an interviewer that 'Birtism is dead'.
Those who read the tea-leaves in the TV Centre canteen say that the tribe of zealots Birt brought with him from commercial TV is being sidelined. Earnestness is out, in favour of ratings. Even Panorama, whose editor once said she did not mind if only five people were watching, is tackling more accessible topics. Question Time itself has never been a Birtist programme - all wind and no substance.
What does David say he wants to do with it?
To stop the politicians blathering on with their prepared expositions of the party line.
Where have I heard that before?
Brian Lapping, the independent producer, said the same when he took over the programme two and a half years ago.
And did he succeed?
Of course not. You cannot stop a politician grinding on, any more than you can stop the wind blowing. It is what they are for.
What else does David plan?
To give the audience more say.
Is that a good idea?
Not necessarily. It depends on its having something relevant and coherent to contribute, and there's no way of telling until its members start talking. But 'access' is a buzz word at the Beeb nowadays.
I know we're short of time, but one last question. Why were no women considered ? Wouldn't Sue Lawley have been great?
Thank you. Now you, sir, in the puce tie and the Armani suit . . .
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