Finally, I’ve hit the big time. I’ve asked a question on Question Time. But I expect, if you live in the UK, you know that already, because even the dullest of viewers would have been stirred from their torpor by the vigorous intervention of the young woman in the red jumper. Reader, that young woman was me.
That’s right: despite a long-held and firm belief in my own masculinity, I’ve been forced to think again, and wonder whether I’m really so blokeish after all. Admittedly, I look just as I did before. And I haven’t been spending a disproportionate amount of time considering, y’know, kittens and Galaxy chocolate and Heat magazine and things. Even anatomically, I’m more or less exactly as I was before David Dimbleby peered at me over his glasses and gestured at what he can only have thought was my ample bosom; but after all, television anchors are invested with considerable authority these days, and if he wants to refer to me as the lady in the red top, who am I to argue?
Ho ho. Only joking. I’m a real boy, as one of my less generous text message correspondents pointed out in the aftermath. (Nothing like national televisual humiliation to encourage long lost pals to get in touch, it turns out.) Still, thinking about it, if one has to be taken for a lady on prime time current affairs programming, probably better for the venue to be Question Time than any of the alternatives. For Question Time, uniquely in the roster of news shows on terrestrial TV, offers Joe (or Joanne) Public the right of reply; and I got to say, er, I’m a man, actually, in my huskiest tones; and the record was set straight, and everything was OK. (If you consider it OK to be mistaken for a member of the opposite sex in front of the million or so viewers the programme attracts, which is a question I’d rather not address, frankly.) Now, if Fiona Bruce or Jon Snow slandered your gender, well, it’d be hard to correct the public impression: at least, in this forum, Mrs. Higgins in East Cheam can rapidly have her misapprehension straightened out.
And that’s why it matters. There should be more television like Question Time: there should be more opportunities for members of the public to become involved in the political process, and to correct things, and to have their opinion heard. Nothing else sees politicians so surely brought to account; nothing else so hearteningly reaffirms the maxim that all politics is local. When they’re talking about reforming the NHS, you are suddenly conscious that actually, what they’re talking about is changing the way your local hospital will work when you fall under a bus; when they’re talking about householders’ rights of self-defence, you are acutely aware that actually, they’re talking about what you should do if someone’s making off with your television set. What Question Time reveals is that politics is just another word for stuff that matters to everyone, including people who profess not to be interested in politics.
Ironic, then, that the regular threats to the show’s existence are generally borne of a desire to broaden the appeal of political programming. (In fact, it’s watched by more 18-25 year olds than any other current affairs show – which may be like saying marajuana is more popular with Chelsea pensioners than any other drug, admittedly.) How do the schedulers imagine they’re going to succeed in getting people –especially young people – interested in politics, if not by sitting the ministers in an unpleasantly warm studio and have them shout at each other in front of a live audience? One needn’t be interested in the finer points of the exchange rate mechanism to think it’s good television.
With an uninspiring government facing an opposition so turgid and reactionary that the election result’s already a foregone conclusion, the importance of this sort of programme can’t be overstated if we’re to find any way of collectively reengaging in the political process. Citizenship ceremonies, which Charles Clarke believes are the way to invest young people with a sense of national pride, are a patently silly idea. The way to reinvigorate interest in government is not to patronize young people with snigger-inducingly earnest riffs on what it means to be British; nor is it to pretty up political debate so it looks more like T4. Young people aren’t more stupid by dint of their youth, and if our politicians were to do a better job of making the connection between the political process and the way we all live our lives, enlightened self-interest would take care of the rest. Question Time may not be the solution, but it points us in the right direction: frankly, if it’s what it takes to keep it on the air, I’ll be David Dimbleby’s bitch every Thursday night.