Off the record: report from Question Time in Thurrock.
By Ella Vine
A couple of weeks ago, BBC’s Question Time came from the Civic Hall in Grays. We asked a member of the audience, Thurrock resident and community activist, Ella Vine to reflect upon her experience.
MANY people were asking me about the experience of being a member of the audience in Question Time and so I have decided to share it a little.
But it is what is behind the scene that is most interesting and I am going to focus on this. It is not every day that we can watch make up being applied on a male Cabinet minister or hearing them being told off. Yes, yes, for that experience it is definitely a place worth going to.
Firstly, the presenter David Dimbleby told a few jokes to the audience to relax them.
Then we had a ‘dummy’ question, which wasn’t recorded but it was there to check if all arrangements and equipment works fine. The members of the panel were: the Conservative Heath Secretary Jeremy Hunt, Labour leadership candidate Jeremy Corbyn MP, Anne McElvoy of the Economist, comedian Shappi Khorsandi and Douglas Murray of the Spectator. The first dummy question asked by a member of the audience was: ‘’Heathrow or Gatwick?’’. Yes, just that.
As the panel members and the audience shared their thoughts on what they think about the expansion of any of those airports, the Health Secretary Mr Hunt said that in his constituency everyone is affected by both airports. Half of his constituency by Gatwick, the other by Heathrow and so he would like a very high fence to be built in the middle of his constituency and he would like to sit on the top of it. Yes, really. Just in case you didn’t realise, it supposed to be a joke by Mr Hunt. Politicians have a quality of saying very funny jokes.
Then the presenter, Mr Dimbleby asked Mr Hunt why he won’t say what he thinks on this issue. Mr Hunt responded that he as a Cabinet Minister cannot say what he thinks on matters that could predetermine any court case, if there would be any (to do with Gatwick or Heathrow).
Mr Dimbleby pressed him and said that surely, Mr Hunt can state his own personal opinion. Mr Hunt was arguing that no, Cabinet Ministers cannot state their opinions on things that are not yet decided. Mr Dimbleby said that surely Mr Hunt’s personal opinion wouldn’t influence any court case if there would be any in the future and Mr Hunt responded that because he is a Cabinet minister, who knows, some might be influenced by his opinion.
At the end there was a very strong feeling by the audience and by the presenter that this is not the case and that if a Cabinet minister cannot say what he or she thinks on various matters then this is rather strange.
Now we know why they have asked the members of the audience to switch completely their mobile phones off. Not just to turn to volume off, but to turn the device off. The most interesting and entertaining question was not recorded. I have made a decision that next time, I will have my camera ready (Psst! Just don’t tell the BBC).
Then just before the cameras went live, a makeup artist came on to the stage and corrected hair and makeup of the celebrities. It was rather an unusual view to see Mr Hunt allowing for a bit of powder to be put on his nose and forehead. That was when I thought, damn, I wish I had my camera on. Jeremy Corbyn was left untouched.
Lights, cameras and the first question fired on: ‘’Is it realistic to think that the UK can protect its citizens abroad and prevent a Tunisian tragedy in the future?’’. We had about 12 minutes to discuss this topic. A very lively and interesting discussion, again,
Every member of the panel had they say and many members of the audience commented and shared their thoughts. I was lucky enough to be chosen to comment, but unlucky in a way that I had about 20 seconds to share my view on this, rather complex, subject as the presenter asked me to wrap it up briefly as we were moving on to another question (new topic).
I said: ‘’What is needed is a strong vision, leadership and building alliances with other countries. Leading. Britain should be leading, especially in Europe’’. Then I saw Mr Hunt looking at me intensively and shaking his head vigorously in support of what I was saying. I continued: ‘’And a strategy, a long-term strategy’’. As Mr Hunt was shaking his head in support I noticed another movement in the panel: the presenter giving me clear signs to wrap it up. I said: ‘’The problem with this country is that politicians are really short-term and short-sighted. We should have these plans 20 years ago’’. As I was continuing the pressure from the presenter was mounting: he was now waving his hands and showing to the cameras which another person he wants to ask next.
As disturbing that was to me I have negotiated some more seconds with him by changing the tone of my voice and strongly continuing: ‘’Another thing, as I said, we should be leading in the world. Because if not us, then who will? Unfortunately, the current approach is: when I look at this, the Prime Minister going around other European countries and begging them for some ancillary things, like child benefit or whatever, while he should be standing strongly as a Leader and talking about those things (prevention of atrocities etc.).’’
Then I saw that my time was running out and that Mr Dimbleby wouldn’t let me carry on anymore and as I had my last 2 seconds I have thrown a bombshell: ‘’At the moment we have some kind of spineless jellyfish approach’’.
Then I noticed and heard turmoil from the panel. Anne McElvoy from the Economist laughed when she heard my ‘’spineless jellyfish’’ phrase. I heard some men’s’ voices and hand-waving. It was the presenter and the Health Secretary talking over themselves and we couldn’t understand a word. The Presenter wanted to move to another topic and the Health Secretary was desperate to defend the Prime Minister and his government’s record. The Presenter gave up and Mr Hunt said: ‘’This is exactly what he (the Prime Minster) has been doing’’. I wondered: ‘’does he mean that the Prime Minster has been taking the spineless jellyfish approach?’’. Mr Hunt continued: ‘’Because this week he (The Prime Minster) has made a Very Important Speech about tackling this extremist ideology head on’’.
‘’Whoops’’, I thought ‘’This is exactly what I have been talking about – short-sighted, short-termism, no vision, no strategy and no leadership. Does making a Very Important Speech after an atrocity amount to prevention, vision and a leadership?’’. I thought that Mr Hunt’s words only confirmed what I said earlier about the state of leadership Britain is in. No wonder that politicians cannot understand what I am talking about as they used to be reactive to events, rather than pro-active, seeking solutions before events occur.
Then even worse things came. Mr Hunt talked about the idea of invasion and British troops on the ground. I thought: ‘’Oh no, this is definitely not what I was talking about. I was talking about a vision, leadership and strategy, which is the very opposite to sending troops after an event’’. I wanted to say this, but the presenter didn’t allow carrying on anymore on this subject and we moved on to the next phase.
The next three questions were:
‘’Should teachers be responsible for monitoring students for signs of radicalisation?’’
‘’Would it be a good idea to charge for missed appointments at the doctor’s surgery?’’
‘’What does it matter to us if Greece will vote ‘’Yes or No on Sunday?’’.
As I wrote above, the most interesting things happen outside the reach of the camera.
As I got home, the hashtag #jellyfish was trending on twitter. Anne McElvoy, the public policy editor at the Economist tweeted that she liked my phrase.
On the Stanford-le-Hope facebook group a commentary about the episode was buzzing and a very interesting comment by cllr Sue Little directed to me, who wrote what is all that fuss about, because if she would have blinked, she would have missed me (in the TV).
As I read it, I blinked. I guess, it was too little to Mrs Little.
It was also too little to a caseworker of UKIP MEP Tim Aker who tweeted to me: ‘’Well asked! You asked for more leadership. Does that include boots on the ground or air strikes in Syria?’’. I blinked again. This is the last thing you expect to be asked at midnight from an officer of an MEP. So I replied laconically that I don’t run the country and advised him to ask the Prime Minister.
He didn’t give up: ‘’I just didn’t understand what you meant by leadership’’, he wrote.
‘’No wonder’’ I thought and replied ‘’I’m not surprised you didn’t understand this. You are not seeing it (leadership) recently’’.
As more tweets were coming, I kept blinking.
Have I written that the most interesting things happen off the record?