Monday 21 December 2015

Ethnicity and Question Time

David Lammy early this month made waves in the Question Time obsessives' community by pointing out how limited the panel composition is. He wrote:
Within the meagre 9.2% of Question Time slots filled by a BAME panellist, there is a staggering lack of diversity. Black women have appeared just 16 times in five years, and 12 of those appearances have been made by Diane Abbott. Another two appearances were by South African black female politicians during the Question Time South Africa special in 2013. Bonnie Greer has appeared twice. There are about 1 million black women in Britain.

Similarly, almost 50% of the appearances made by black men were by Chuka Umunna. Together, it means that just two people have filled well over half of the slots given to black guests since 2010. As talented as they are, Diane and Chuka cannot speak for the entirety of Britain’s diverse black communities, just as Alan Johnson and Caroline Flint should not have to be the sole voices of the white working-class.

There is a similar lack of diversity when it comes to guests of Asian heritage. Again, the same few names dominate: Mehdi Hasan and Baroness Warsi, for example, have filled almost a third of the guest slots filled by British Asians. Analysis of the available data shows that, of the 63 appearances made by British Asian guests, just four have been by people of Hindu heritage. That’s 0.3% of total guest slots – five times less than we should expect given the UK population is 1.5% Hindu. Britain’s half a million Sikhs are also woefully under-represented.
David is basically right. Looking at Question Time seasons since September 2009 to July of this year, here are my figures:

G/S %

G/S is number of guests and number of slots. 
M/F is male/female 
G/S % are the number of guests and number of slots occupied by black and minority ethnicity guests. 

I haven't broken guests down by self-reporting ethnicity, but there are obvious under-representation issues here. According to the 2011 census some 12.8% of the UK self-describe as a non-white ethnicity meaning there is still a bit of the way to go for Question Time to give racial minorities proportionality. 2013-14 was the year we came closest to it, and then it was thanks to the programme's first majority black panel in its history as it sojourned to South Africa for an episode. 

On the point about overusing guests, David writes "Question Time executives use their power to perpetuate the small “chumocracy” of white, patrician, Oxbridge-educated men making the same arguments, and excluding other voices that deserve to be heard." Yes, and no. What Question Time does, as I argued earlier this year is a bias towards the establishment. Where it comes to party representatives, it is my understanding that the whip's office normally picks guests for the show. Take the case of Sayeeda Warsi, for instance. There was a time when she was almost as ubiquitous as Nigel Farage, but she hasn't appeared for a while. Why? Well, she fell out with Dave. Her place in the Question Time Tory pantheon has got filled by Sajid Javid who, as far as the PM is concerned, is a very safe pair of hands. That said, I have no doubt the producers favour politicians who are prominent in some way which; under the ancien regime, Chuka Umunna certainly was. 

In a series of to-be-published papers, I will be setting out how since 1979 the guest pool has contracted from a guest list drawn from politics, journalism, industry (business and trade unions), academia, public servants to one more or less confined to politics, journalism, and celebrity - in other words, people who are in the extended networks of the show's producers. This general pattern is reflected in the composition of BME guests since 2009 - if they're front bench or have had occasion to grace other BBC programmes, they're in. For example, just eight guests are responsible for 56 out of 100 slots taken by BME guests in the six year period. Incredible. So yes, let's see some more variety on Question Time

At a time when (centre-left) politics has been shaken by a huge protest against an out-of-touch consensus, it's perverse that the BBC's flagship programme remains ridiculously narrow.

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