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Question Time election debate was people power at its best

Tough crowd. Stefan Rousseau/PA

In a special edition of Question Time, David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband faced members of the public, taking questions on Europe, immigration, the economy, benefits and the NHS. But there was also a distinctive partisan tinge to the questioning, as all the leaders – particularly David Cameron – were probed on their trustworthiness. Hosting the event was David Dimbleby, the Question Time veteran who has chaired the programme since 1994.

Prior to the evening’s programme, Dimbleby introduced it as follows:

Question Time is quite different from any other form of political debate. It gives the power to the voter, just like old fashioned hustings, to ask whatever they want and to have a chance to come back with more questions if they are not satisfied with the answers they get.

Dimbleby’s statement highlights the important symbolic role of the programme, which has been broadcast since 1979 and has always been a flagship for BBC politics coverage. It occupies a distinctive place within the culture of British broadcasting, signalling the importance of audience participation as a way of holding the powerful accountable – a process which is perhaps never more important than at election time.

Indeed, scholars have viewed the programme as exemplary of a trend in broadening citizens’ access and democratic participation in the age of mediated politics. Nick Anstead and Ben O’Loughlin have argued:

The proximity between the governing and the governed makes the programme unusual, both in the United Kingdom and also in an international context. Very few politicians around the world expose themselves to such direct public scrutiny, making the programme the most high-profile political discussion show on British television.

Because Question Time represents ordinary people holding the powerful to account, the decision to host the final showdown between the three main party leaders on the programme has significant symbolic significance. It signals the inclusion of citizens in an election where the main party leaders – particularly David Cameron – have frequently been noticed for their conspicuous lack of interaction with voters.

Yet the format of this election special diverged from the standard Question Time set-up: while the programme usually features panellists answering questions from the audience together, the three party leaders appeared separately, in 28-minute time slots.

The composition of the audience was also carefully considered with an eye to party politics, featuring 25% supporting each of the three main parties, and the final 25% made up by undecided voters and those supporting other parties. The programme format was based on drawn-out negotiations, amid widespread complaints that Downing Street has had undue influence on the agreed format. In particular, David Cameron was alleged to wish to avoid direct confrontation with Ed Miliband at all costs.

Highlights of the debate included Cameron and Miliband’s insistence that they would not enter into coalition agreements or deals, with both memorably shunning the idea of ending up in a “dark room with Nick Clegg”.

Cameron once again brought up his experience with the NHS treatment of his son, Ivan, while Clegg repeated his party’s election mantra of choosing Lib Dems to avoid the country lurching to the left, or lurching to the right. Miliband, on the other hand, distinguished himself by stumbling as he exited stage left. Over on Twitter, however, much of the attention was on David Dimbleby’s tie.

But probably the most important insight from the evening’s event was that a member of the public can be as tough a task master as any journalist. The Question Time audience provided few softball questions but mainly confronted the party leaders robustly. Owen Jones, the writer and political commentator, tweeted:

Piers Morgan gushed:

As the last of three debate programmes before the general election, there were few surprises around the policies of the three parties or the personalities of their leaders. Instead, the lasting impression was one of democracy at work.

This Question Time was not for the faint-hearted: it was often an uncomfortable viewing experience that amounted to an aggressive and uncompromising bollocking of our main political leaders. It reminded us that in elections, it’s ultimately the citizens who steal the show.

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