Real people finally having their say? Press coverage of BBC Question Time leaders’ ‘debate’

Previous research has noted a curious ambivalence concerning the role of the public in news reporting. While the press insist that they speak on behalf of their readers, and while Vox Pop interviews, opinion polls and inferences about public opinion are all regular components of news reporting that allow journalists to make ‘ample references’ to public opinion, the public are rarely ever granted the opportunity to articulate their political views and preferred solutions in detail. In the news, the public only ever react to the latest political developments.

For the most part, this pattern seems to have held throughout the 2015 election. Party leaders, along with a handful of senior (and supposedly popular) figures from within each party, have attracted the lion’s share of coverage, partly because the parties’ campaigns have been so carefully choreographed

The audience as the star of the show?

This top-down tendency was finally broken on the night of Thursday 30th April, when the leaders of the three main parties, David Cameron, Ed Miliband, and Nick Clegg, each had to endure a torrid time at the hands of the 150 or so people who made up the audience of the BBC’s flagship Question Time show. The leaders were mercilessly grilled in relation to a broad spread of issues including taxation, the economy, immigration, and the future of the NHS.

The programme generated a substantial amount of coverage in the next day’s newspapers, being the lead news item in The Mail, The Telegraph, The Times, The Guardian, and The Independent, while The Sun and The Mirror also devoted a considerable amount of coverage to it. Only Richard Desmond’s newspapers, The Express and The Star, seemed uninterested, giving precious little attention to the programme. For all the other papers though, this was an exciting election story that they enthusiastically covered: ‘The night real voters finally had their say’ beamed The Mail across its front page; ‘The most compelling and revealing election broadcast of the campaign’ declared The Times in its editorial. They loved it because the audience asked tough questions and pressed the politicians when they weren’t satisfied with their answers. ‘Who won?’ asked Ann Treneman in The Times. ‘Definitely the audience’ was her answer. Likewise, Andy McSmith of the centrist Independent hailed the ‘feisty audience’ as ‘the real star of an enlightening show’.

Catherine Shuttleworth versus ‘Red Ed’

Yet what really set the reporting of this event apart was the way it was framed around the audience’s questions, challenges and rantings, often by quoting audience members at far greater length than the party leaders. Usually of course, it’s the other way around. One fairly typical example of this came from The Mail’s double-pager, ‘Woman who shredded Red Ed’, which focused on the contribution from Catherine Shuttleworth, a businesswoman from Leeds. Shuttleworth seized on the now infamous letter that Labour’s former Chief Secretary to the Treasury left behind upon leaving office after the last election, and that David Cameron had pulled out only moments earlier, which simply read ‘I’m afraid there is no money’. The letter was almost certainly meant as a joke for private correspondence, but Ms Shuttleworth clearly didn’t see the funny side, and nor did The Mail. She was quoted at length:

“Going back to the letter. I run a business in Leeds. The last five years have been really tough, but the economy is improving.

“What worries me is you are about to put Ed Balls back as Chancellor and he called that letter a joke.

“Running a business the last few years is [sic] anything but a joke, and if that’s the way you want to treat business how can we trust you? Why on earth would I trust a Chancellor who thinks that letter was a joke? If he worked in the corporate world he would have been fired and he wouldn’t have been allowed back to that job.”

That’s a 109-word quote. Miliband’s response wasn’t even reproduced. Later in the same article, another Miliband critic, who also wanted to talk about the past, was quoted giving a 112-word ticking off to Miliband for “lying” after the Labour leader defended the previous Labour government’s record on public spending.

People power and partisanship

However, before we overturn decades worth of scholarship on the media’s reporting of politics to declare that we have now reached the point where the public have dethroned political elites to become the ones who now set the media’s agenda, it is important to appreciate that newspapers still have the final say over whose words make it into print. Moreover, the papers would appear to make their decisions in line with their partisan preferences. The two previously mentioned quotations were reproduced (sometimes in truncated form) in The Telegraph, The Times, and The Sun – all of which are Tory supporting papers. By the same token each of those papers tended to either ignore or undermine some of the strongest attacks on Cameron. According to The Times, Cameron had to endure ‘sometimes emotional’ questions about ‘‘welfare cuts’’ and ‘‘food banks’’, as if to imply those weren’t entirely rational concerns.

Yet with the Labour supporting papers, The Mirror and The Guardian, it was the other way round. According to The Mirror’s Kevin Maguire, ‘Slippery Cameron’ was ‘savaged by angry voters’. The Guardian’s treatment of the broadcast also betrayed its partisan alignment, albeit in a more subtle way. Their front-page lead, ‘Miliband hardens his line: I will not do deal with SNP’, concentrated on what the Labour Leader said he would and would not do in the event of a hung parliament. In the process the report relegated the exchanges between Miliband and the audience to being of secondary importance. When the paper did report on those exchanges, critical questions tended to briefly paraphrased, while Miliband’s answers were reproduced at length. By contrast, The Guardian often quoted Cameron’s critics far more extensively than they quoted the Prime Minister when he defended himself in response.

The only constant across the papers was that none of them devoted that much space to dissecting Nick Clegg’s performance.

Ian Taylor


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