Page last updated at 10:04 GMT, Thursday, 24 September 2009 11:04 UK

US Question Time 'would not work'

On Question Time's 30th anniversary, editor Ed Havard celebrates the show's capacity to put politicians on the spot.

David Dimbleby
David Dimbleby has chaired Question Time since January 1994

There is something very British about Question Time.

Having just spent a sabbatical year in Washington - where politicians are in the most part astonishingly remote from their electorate - I am reminded that the programme represents a major investment in the democratic process by our political class.

My American colleagues - some of them aides to top US politicians - would watch DVDs of the show in near disbelief, open mouthed.

This could never happen in the US, they would say, none of the senior politicians would be willing to mix with voters in prime time.

Yet back in the UK, that is exactly what happens, week after week.

Speaking at the weekend to mark the show's 30th anniversary, Harriet Harman said that Question Time can still make or break a political career - and it remains the most dangerous of political formats.

There is none of the predictability of a set piece interview.

'It takes guts'

With an audience determined to ask questions about almost anything - and to keep asking until they get a straight answer - it takes guts for politicians to appear.

Margaret Beckett

Some current ministers, like many Tories before them, have agreed to come on the panel even when they know they are riding into the eye of the storm.

At the height of the public's anger over Northern Rock, Ruth Kelly, then Transport Secretary, dropped everything to travel to the bank's home, Newcastle, to face the public's fury - something no Treasury minister was willing to do.

Some members of the audience were genuinely worried that they would lose huge sums of money, but she found the audience's outrage tempered significantly by their appreciation that a senior member of the government had come to listen to them.

Similarly, Patricia Hewitt was on the programme as Health Secretary at the very moment that she was being attacked relentlessly by doctors in the press.

Question Time has never enjoyed an easy or cosy relationship with the political parties

Though subjected to repeated calls for her resignation from the audience, she calmly argued her case.

She could easily have pulled out of the show - other ministers have done so over much less - but not only did she come, she answered e-mails from doctors in the audience in the days afterwards.

'Genuine balance'

Others have distinguished themselves by their readiness to appear despite the burden of their office.

David Miliband, for example, came on shortly after becoming Foreign Secretary.

Jack Straw, who has held almost all the major offices of state, has made regular appearances.

Of the current cabinet, only one member is a resolute refusenik.

Question Time

There are none in the shadow cabinet, or in the Lib Dem front bench.

But Question Time has never enjoyed an easy or cosy relationship with the political parties.

Most recently, our decision to invite the BNP onto the panel has been attacked by some. Peter Hain has indicated that he intends to boycott the programme.

Others, including Alastair Campbell and Denis Macshane, have suggested that we are inviting the BNP onto the programme to increase ratings.

Question Time is already the most watched political programme in the country.

What is more, it has recently been getting its highest viewing figures since the programme began 30 years ago - almost four million viewers. An odd time then to be trying to artificially inflate ratings.

Others, though never the top tier politicians, have complained about their treatment at the hands of the audience.

Iraq was especially difficult. Opponents of the war tended to be more vocal than those who backed it, and we always had to work hard to ensure a genuine balance in the audiences.

Audience balance

When we mounted a special to mark the fourth anniversary of the invasion - with an international panel including John Bolton, Benazir Bhutto and the then Defence Secretary Des Browne - that balance was effectively realised (despite the weight of public opinion against the war four years in).

Nick Griffin

But a year or so before, when Jack Straw came on in Manchester during Tony Blair's last party conference as Prime Minister, he was the focus of red hot anger over the war.

The public had not forgotten that he was foreign secretary at the time of the invasion and he was repeatedly challenged during a series of highly-charged exchanges.

For whatever reason, many of the supporters of the war in that audience did not speak up.

The TV reviewers loved it and the viewing figures were sky high.

"Brilliantly enjoyable television," said the Daily Telegraph the next day.

I was not so sure. High-viewing figures and great press coverage do not always equal a good programme.

A one-sided haranguing may be good theatre, but for some it is also television which can appeal to the lowest common denominator and that should not be what Question Time is about.

Although this dynamic between the politicians and the audience is a vital ingredient for Question Time, another is the chairman, David Dimbleby.

The audiences respect him and the panellists trust him. For that reason he is always in control, however heated the debate, and he wields his authority with immense skill.

Thirty years on, he remains one of the secrets behind Question Time's enduring success.

A new series of Question Time begins tonight, Thursday 24 September at 10.35 on BBC One.

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