Dispatches from the North: My Appearance on BBC Question Time

I came, I saw, I had my say.

I realize this is a long post, so I’ve split it into two parts for your benefit, first about the experience in general, and then specifically about my brief appearance.

Behind the scenes of BBC Question Time

The entire experience was amazing from start to finish and something I’ll never forget and always feel privileged I had the opportunity to participate in.

Let me start from the beginning, before the show every audience member must submit one question that is “provocative, and reflecting the main news of the week” which last week was difficult as a lot of the news was pretty intense foreign policy news. People love to talk about education, the economy and other close to home issues, but I think a lot of the week’s news was pretty intimidating and many were afraid to ask questions about the war in Afghanistan and David Cameron’s visit to the White House which dominated the headlines.

When we arrived we checked in and were given another card on which to write a second question relating to the day’s news. As the audience members enjoyed complimentary beverages and snacks in the pub, David Dimbleby walked in, grabbed a chair and stood on it to address the audience. He started out by commenting on the history of the Hartlepool Borough Hall which most of us didn’t realize used to be a police station, jail and magistrates court. I was really impressed that he took such an interest in the place and wasn’t “just passing through” and in his little pep talk he was exactly the same witty personality you see on TV.

He encouraged us to get involved, debate, argue with the panelists and each other and if we had something to say please say it. He also told us to treat it as a pantomime and if someone said something we liked to cheer and clap and if someone said something we disagreed with, by all means boo. I was left feeling positive about the whole experience I was about to be a part of.

I had a few expectations going in, first being that certainly it wasn’t a free for all and that the BBC carefully selected the questions and the people from the audience who got a chance to speak and challenge the panelists. This was not the case at all, the only thing the producers had control of was selecting which audience members got to ask their questions to set the topics. This wasn’t done to control the content, questions were selected to make sure this show was current and didn’t cover things that had been covered in previous shows. It honestly was no holds barred and they spent quite a bit of time with the audience getting us warmed up and ready for a lively debate. It is exactly as it appears on TV with no gimmicks and no restrictions.

I also had expected that since we were to be there for 3 1/3 hours that we would spend a couple hours recording the show and debating and they would cut the show up and choose which comments to air. This wasn’t the case at all, the entire broadcasted show is recorded in real time and nothing is cut or excluded from the show.

At 7:15 we were led into the main hall where I saw the set, which looked so different without all the studio lights turned on. After we sat down the Floor Manager came out and requested that 5 audience members volunteer to come down and sit in the panelists’ seats. At this point, everyone was reluctant to get involved and it took some time for 5 people to volunteer themselves to come sit in the hot seats. Then the lights came on, the set came to life with stand-in panelists and the Floor Manager sat in David Dimbleby’s seat to act as the chairman. At this point he brought out a question from the previous week that hadn’t made the show so we would have something to debate with each other. The question was about child obesity in the UK and if child protection orders should be served on parents who allow their children to become obese. The audience spent the next hour debating this single question, with audience members standing in as panelists and this method worked like a charm because it really got the audience warmed up and the group who had been sitting silently and afraid to speak were suddenly getting into a lively debate with each other, all off camera. Then it was announced which audience members would get the opportunity to ask their questions and by the time the panelists were brought in, the audience was fired up and ready to go.

The panelists were brought in one by one, and the audience actually booed every single one of them. I think people were just excited that they had been encouraged to boo politicians and took the opportunity to boo them all whether they agreed with them or not. After the politicians were seated and their microphones pinned on (and Bob Crow’s bald head liberally dusted with powder by the makeup girl) we started with a test question which wasn’t recorded and gave the camera crews a chance to practice getting the angles they needed. After we discussed the practice question we were told we were about to record and then it all started.

It was exciting sitting in the audience and there were some very entertaining arguments between Conservative MP Damian Green and Labour MP Sadiq Khan. Bob Crow seemed to go on tangents about things that seemed to have nothing at all to do with the questions (like Mill Wall football?), Ruth Lea found a way to make her responses as boring as possible and don’t even get me started on the ridiculous behavior of Nigel Farage.

This is Where it gets Interesting…

The show was winding down, I’d managed to go through nearly the whole show without needing to throw my hat in- and then Nigel Farage opened his mouth with some of the most inaccurate and patronising generalizations about the American people I have ever heard. Here is a clip which starts with his ignorant comments and then finally I was called on to speak and give him quite a shock.

Click here to view a larger version.

I honestly think Nigel Farage thought he could get away with what he said relying on the assumption that no Americans would see it, and if they did, certainly none of them would be there in the audience to challenge him. His mistake was to underestimate not only me, but Hartlepool as well. Throughout the night he continually spoke to the audience in a patronising tone, attempting to flatter us and drop in comments like “walking down the high street in Hartlepool” (Hartlepool doesn’t actually have a proper high street) and other such instruments politicians are accustomed to using to woo voters and supporters. He tried to “come down to our level” and figured he could tell us anything and we would buy it, but his comments about America didn’t go unnoticed by the audience. I was also further offended that as I was speaking and challenging him on his ignorant comments he attempted to talk over me, and David Dimbleby actually had to tell him to be quiet and let me have my say. Nigel underestimated the people of Hartlepool, and he certainly didn’t plan on me.

I’ve had the very surreal experience of being able to read about myself on Twitter. I’m quite happy to report that about 99% of Tweeters seemed to be cheering me on, but there was a handful of people who decided to focus on me “forgetting” about Wales (trust me, I didn’t forget I had only a few seconds to get my point across and couldn’t find all the words in the very high pressure heat of the moment), one Tweeter thought I was planted in the audience by the BBC, and then there were a few others who missed the point completely and drew conclusions that I was taking an opposing position to Nigel Farage on the issue.

This was not my aim, I was poking holes in Nigel Farage’s (very weak) argument and what I didn’t actually do was assert any opinion of my own on the topic. I wasn’t going to allow him to fabricate justifications for his point of view while insulting me and all Americans as a means to support his argument. If he thought that nobody representing the UK or Scottish government should be sent to answer for the release of al-Megrahi, I have no problem with that, but to base that argument on a belief that Americans would be confused by devolution of the UK government (a system uncannily similar to state governance in the US) and that we don’t care about anything going on outside our borders is a totally ludicrous way to support such an argument.

I think some people assumed that because I was disagreeing with the premise of Nigel’s argument that they could draw a conclusion that I think Kenny MacAskill and Alex Salmond should be sent to the White House when I didn’t say that at all. I can honestly understand and relate to both sides of the issue, but thats not even what the question was. The question that was asked was whether Alex Salmond should be the one speaking to Obama instead of David Cameron. I do think if anyone at all is going to go it should be whoever was responsible for making the decision and it makes no sense for David Cameron or any member of the current Coalition government to be answering for decisions they had nothing to do with. This would be akin to Barack Obama being asked to answer for a decision that Arnold Schwarzenegger made in California 3 years ago.

As for the comments that Bob Crow made after I spoke, I didn’t really take them as directed at me at all. That was his one chance to speak on the issue and it was clearly a rehearsed answer (and a bit of a red herring if I’m being completely honest). All of the panelists would have known this might be one of the questions and he would have said that in response to any question on the topic regardless of whether I had been there or not.

Overall it was an unforgettable experience, and I like to think I used my 15 seconds of “fame” to defend my fellow Americans, and the cherry on the top was the priceless look on Nigel Farage’s face.

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  1. avatarH777 says

    Well done for speaking up for your views, however I do feel that you were a little unfair on Nigel Farage.

    Sure, he is bumptious, but he didn’t say that Americans were incapable of understanding the devolution arrangements in the UK, he just said that it was unrealistic to expect them to understand them, because they are more concerned with what is going on locally in the USA. This is really no different to saying that it’s unrealistic to expect UK citizens to understand the German constitution – we could if we were interested in them – it’s just that most of us aren’t.

    For example, many Americans, and foreigners in general, mistakenly conflate England and Britain (I worked in Belgium and had to correct people frequently) and fewer still appreciate the difference between the UK and Great Britain. I would say that half the people in the UK don’t realise that Scotland has always had a separate legal system and I certainly didn’t realise that Scottish politicians had the right to release Al Megrahi until they actually did.

    I think Farage’s sometimes unfortunate style of speaking leads people to believe that what he says is actually more confrontational and offensive than it actually is.

    In any case, most people in Britain and the US get on just fine. OK, sometimes we’re a bit rude about each other – but then I’m like that with my wife (and vice versa) and we have managed over 20 years together.

    • avatar says

      I don’t really think your example of the German constitution is relevant here since the UK’s unwritten constitution and the German constitution are so different. In this particular case the system of state governance in the US and the devolved UK government are quite similar, so Americans can certainly be expected to understand. This was my point to Nigel Farage and I don’t think it was unfair at all. Americans don’t need to study the specific details of the devolution referendum of 1997 to understand the concept of Scotland having its own government and justice system when every state in the US also has its own government and justice system.

      State governance is one of the founding principles of the United States of America, so I think it is totally reasonable to expect most Americans to understand the relatively new devolved Scottish government.