Thursday, October 29, 2009

Why is Any Questions better than Question Time?

I'm sure this is an old, old debate. And some people might reject the premise, pointing to a greater audience for the BBC1 television programme Question Time than the BBC Radio 4 programme Any Questions. Question Time (hereafter "QT" to minimise confusion between the two programmes) also seems to me to have a greater sense of a national political theatre about it, more of a political "event": QT is often mentioned in the full range of news media, whereas Any Questions is only rarely mentioned.

But I enjoy Any Questions much more: the discussions seem to be more interesting, deeper, more reflective than QT. Perhaps my preference is not widely shared, but I've been thinking a lot recently about why Any Questions ends up more satisfying to me, and decided it was time to write some of these possibilities down.

1. The panel members
I've no idea if there's any difference at all between the kinds of people invited on QT and those invited on any Any Questions. I haven't noticed a big difference. It seems unlikely, although QT has a reputation for some "stunt" invitations, such as soap stars and other celebrities, so perhaps there's a slightly narrower background for panel members on Any Questions.

2. The number of panel members
This might seem like a trivial thing, but I'm sure it's not. I can't remember exactly when QT moved from a panel of 4 to a panel of 5, but I remember thinking at the time that this would dilute the contributions of the members, make it harder for members to build an argument and comment on others' arguments, make it harder to chair, make it harder for the audience to follow arguments and distinguish the views. All in all, it would move the dynamics away from that of a panel towards that of 5 people being asked a succession of questions. On the positive side, I was hoping for a wider range of views and space for panel members from outside the usual political circles. My current view is that these expectations - both positive and negative - have been borne out.

3. The questions
It's only recently that I've wondered how different the questions are between the two programmes. The questions for both programmes come from the audience, and are presumably selected by the producers on the basis of popularity, topicality and the likelihood of a good discussion. My perception has been in recent years that QT questions have been tended to be more superficial; more focused on personality, trivia, gossip and petty politics and less focused on the political principles underlying decisions to be made; more provocative, but in a rhetoric-provoking rather than thought-provoking way.

4. The cameras
It's possible the sense of being looked at by millions rather than just hundreds puts people on the spot. The bright lights, the challenge of controlling one's facial expressions and mannerisms at the same time as thinking about what one is saying, the certainty that any slip will be instantly taken up and used for years by newspapers, television and YouTube... Many experienced speakers have appeared to turn into startled rabbits on QT. Conversely, some panel members seem to become more hectoring than usual.

5. The chair
This is often cited by friends as the biggest reason for why Any Questions is superior. David Dimbleby on QT, they say, is alternately bland or rude, interrupting perfectly reasonable responses to put irritating and unexpected side questions or to challenge the speaker with quotes. But I'm not sure than Jonathan Dimbleby on Any Questions is all that different. Jonathan is probably slightly more considered in how he puts his side questions, and but on the whole they detract from the discussion in much the same way. To be fair, both presenters are also often effective in cutting through waffle, or in keeping the discussion on track. I don't think they do a terrible job on the while. On Any Questions, when Jonathan Dimbleby is away, Eddie Mair and the late Nick Clarke have been better. And before David Dimbleby on QT, Peter Sissons was blander, and Robin Day was slightly sparkier with more charm. But I'm not sure the chair makes as big a difference as sometimes claimed.

6. The audiences
There have been some truly terrible audiences on QT, booing or shouting endlessly, intimidating panel members. There have been a few bad ones on Any Questions, but perhaps not quite so many, and typically much more restrained. Audience contributions on Any Questions generally seem calmer, more rational. Is this because a radio programme attracts a more cerebral audience than its more glamorous counterpart on television? Or is it another example of the effect of cameras mentioned above?

Have I missed any other possibilities? Am I being fair? I've not backed up any of the assertions here with evidence, so this is all quite weak stuff. It's all perception. Has anyone carried out empirical research into differences between the discussions on these programmes?

Update 1 Nov 2009

Oh how could I forget this one...!

7. The medium
For me, neither programme seems to need 100% of my attention. I can't just sit and listen to Any Questions, or I'll get restless. Listening to it while washing up, walking or driving is perfect. And without the distractions of what the speakers look like, I'm free to focus on the arguments, the rhetorical devices, and what they're not saying.

Meanwhile, watching QT while washing up, walking or driving are not options. However, maybe sometime I should try listening to QT while engaged in these activities, to see how the experience compares with Any Questions, and whether the pictures are adding or detracting. So occupy the excess brain-power that isn't needed in watching the programme, I've taken to Twitter or a couple of the live web chats. Unfortunately I've found that formulating intelligible sentences while continuing to watch and also trying to work out what I think of what others are saying on the internet is actually slightly more than I can cope with in order to completely follow everything that is being said on the programme. And so I think this split attention is perhaps reducing rather than enhancing what I think of the programme. However, my enjoyment of watching is definitely enhanced by these chats. So, slightly perversely, I end up thinking less of the programme, but enjoying it more.