Live from the BBC - a vital question of democracy

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The Independent Online
I WAS privileged to be present at the final stages of the contest to choose a new chairman for Question Time, at which David Dimbleby emerged triumphant over Jeremy Paxman, and I thought it gave such an insight into the way Question Time works, that I have decided to bring you a transcript of part of the judging.

You ought to know that the panel whose job it was to choose between Dimbleby and Paxman was, inevitably, composed of one left-wing politician, one right- wing politician, one Liberal Democrat and a real person. I was in the chair but, as is the custom, I played no real part in the proceedings except to point my pencil forcefully at lots of people off-camera who the viewers at home couldn't see.

Right, here we go, then.

Me: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the final part of today's proceedings, and let's go straight to our first and indeed only questioner, yes, sir, you, the man in the grey Armani suit . . .

Man: John Birt, a broadcaster, and I want to ask the panel if they have finally decided who the next chairman of Question Time will be.

Me: Well, I don't know if you all heard that, but Mr Birt is a broadcaster who wants to know if we have sorted out a new chairman for Question Time. Let's turn first to you, Mr Right Wing . . .

Right Wing: Yes, well, I'm not sure, you know, if electing a new chairman is the best way of going about getting the best choice. We need the very best chairmen in industry today, and goodness knows we need our industry today more than we ever have done, which is why the Government has put more money than it ever has done into this area, whereas, if I may remind viewers, when we came to power in 1979 Labour had left us with a backlog of . . .

Left Wing: I really can't let Norman get away with this, if I may say so. Yes, there have been a few good chairmen in British industry. Yes, one or two chairmen stand out in our memories as the way British industry should be going. But for every Arnold Weinstock there is a Robert Maxwell and a Rupert Murdoch and a Tiny Rowland . . .

Me: I think, if I am not mistaken, Mr Left Wing, that Robert Maxwell stood as a Labour candidate for Parliament, did he not?

Left Wing: And it's a good job he didn't get in, or the Labour Party pension scheme would be in some trouble now] (Laughter)

Me: Ms Liberal Democrat?

Lib Dem: What amazes me is the way the two major parties have got away for so long with the polarisation of people's views on this. Either you have to be for the status quo or dedicated to its overthrow - that's what we are told. But surely if we were only given the chance to produce a new system and a new way of voting - and, come to that, a new way of choosing a chairman for Question Time, well, then . . .

Me: Yes, I think we get the picture. And now the only real person on this panel of Question Time, the fourth member of the panel, who is traditionally either a maverick journalist or the head of some business or trade union. Which are you, may I ask?

Fourth: Actually, I am Sir Robin Day.

Me: Welcome to the programme, Sir Robin. Is this the first time you have been on it as a guest?

Day: I can't remember.

Me: Can't you? Well, we all have our problems. And do you think it should be young Paxman or young Dimbleby?

Day: Do I think what should be young Paxman or young Dimbleby?

Me: The next chairman of Question Time.

Day: I don't think Question Time is still on air, is it?

Me: Well, we've heard the views of the panel, so perhaps it's time now to ask the questioner what he thinks. Mr Birt?

Man: Well, having listened to the whole discussion, I can't help feeling that maybe I got it wrong and what is needed is not a new chairman but a new kind of panel. Why on earth have we had a panel week after week which always has an MP from each of the main parties, when the important questions of today have nothing to do with party politics? Why do we pretend that anyone cares what modern politicians think, when we know it's just going to be this week's party line? Why do we encourage questions from the audience that are always about this week's political headlines and about which the MPs in the panel have always been briefed? Why, in short, have we pretended for so long that this programme has anything to do with democracy?

Me: Good question. Well, as the man says, this is not a truly democratic exercise, but all of those in favour of Paxman raise your hands. Right, and all those for Dimbleby? OK . . . And those in favour of the idea that Question Time has nothing to do with life as it is lived in the real world? Good heavens. And good night.