QT's pro-Tory bias: the BBC replies to Lib Dem Voice

by Stephen Tall on March 13, 2008

Its a month since Lib Dem Voice found that the BBC’s Question Time is “officially pro-Tory”, with considerably more Conservative-aligned panellists than Labour, let alone the Lib Dems. (We even produced the obligatory bar-chart as conclusive proof.) As promised, we emailed the BBC with the link to our story, and have today received their reply:

Dear Mr Tall

Thank you for your e-mail and I’d like to start by apologising for the time it has taken to get back to you. I hope you haven’t been inconvenienced.

Turning to your concerns I did raise the issue with the programme’s editor who has asked me to pass on the following response which I hope reassures you:

It’s clearly very difficult to give a detailed analysis of the bar chart without knowing precisely how they categorised each panellist. A “declared supporter of the party” need not necessarily toe the party line, as Tony Benn, Bob Marshall-Andrews, Lord Tebbit and others have long shown, so a tick-box approach is not always an accurate reflection of balance within a panel.

“Naturally party affiliation is a consideration, but a strict tagging of guests as members of this or that party is not a particularly fruitful exercise. Affiliation is only one of many factors the production team takes into account. Our primary goal is to offer viewers balanced, interesting and engaging political debate, with a combination of established and new speakers reflecting a breadth of opinions across a variety of newsworthy topics. That can occasionally mean two supporters of the same party appearing on the same panel – for instance Sarah Teather and Greg Dyke, or Charles Kennedy and Germaine Greer. Nevertheless across the run of a series we aim to achieve a reasonable range (though not a precise statistical equivalence) of political views.

To be clear, political balance is not the same as party political balance. The automatic weekly inclusion of a Lab/Lib Dem/Conservative representative may be deemed “fair” from a party perspective but – by the nature of their stances – it immediately tips the debate’s political centre of gravity. To achieve a broad spectrum of political opinion is thus not as simple as
instigating a rigid party formula (whether 5:5:4 or otherwise). I do think the Lib Dem Voice’s own users’ responses to the bar chart exercise make for interesting reading.”

Thank you again for contacting the BBC.

Yours sincerely

Stewart McCullough
Complaints Coordinator
BBC Complaints

Well, fair dos to the Beeb for penning more than a standard response (though the details of classification were made publicly available). It’s certainly true that political balance is not simply determined by party classification; but nor can it be ignored. And its a bit cheeky of the BBC to suggest they only “occasionally” feature two supporters of the same party when the original interest in all this was sparked by QT featuring two declared Tories on the panel for four consecutive weeks.

Anyway, the point has been made. Let’s see what happens in the future…

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Well done for raising the issue with the BBC, let’s hope it’ll have some effect although I’m not optimistic! I was in the audience of BBC Radio 4’s “Any Questions” in London last week, where the same thing applied. One Lib Dem (Chris Huhne), one Labour (Ken Livingstone) and two Conservatives (Theresa May and Matthew D’Ancona).

Judging by the clapping/booing ratios, I think there were a total of about 3 Lib Dems in the audience too (including me and the other member I went with). But I suppose we can’t blame the BBC for that!

by Catherine Reifen on March 13, 2008 at 9:48 pm. Reply #

I’m very much for the BBC. I’d like the Lib Dems to be represented, but I think we should definitely keep our distance from all the far-right anti groups out there.

by asquith on March 13, 2008 at 10:00 pm. Reply #

I recognise the basis for the complaint, but I think the difference between partisan and political representation does win the day (though to ask how the latter is measured – on the grounds that the former is – would make a pretty interesting follow-up letter).

Going down this route does concern me a little, as it opens the logistical nightmare that would be ensuring the audience is representative – and I don’t believe either BBC management or any of the guests would be enlivened by 30% empty seats on a regular basis (or 50+% during the local election programme).

by Oranjepan on March 13, 2008 at 10:58 pm. Reply #

Like I said on the original thread, compare that bar chart to how we’re actually polling at the moment and we are substantially over-represented on Question Time.

by sanbikinoraion on March 14, 2008 at 11:59 am. Reply #

And its a bit cheeky of the BBC to suggest they only “occasionally” feature two supporters of the same party when the original interest in all this was sparked by QT featuring two declared Tories on the panel for four consecutive weeks.

So where is the supposed Tory bias then? After all, you Libs and the Labs are of the left. So 3 of the 5 panellists were non-Tory. Very often there is 1 Tory and 5 socialists and Libs.

Maybe you’ll only be happy when the panel consists of Vince Cable, Sarah Teather, Nicol Stephen, Geoff Hoon and Ken Clarke.

by Tory Realist on March 14, 2008 at 9:44 pm. Reply #

Would it not be better if programmes like Question Time had NO politicians on?

They never answer the question, they indulge in juvenile point scoring exercises, and are generally without any charisma.

I prefer to see politicians in programmes like The Apprentice-Sports Relief and see how they operate in real situations.

I mean when a politician cannot even persuade his girl to attend a charity function and cannot negotiate….it proves something!

All politicians are U.S!!

by antilibdem on March 14, 2008 at 10:15 pm. Reply #

Relative to their polling, actual votes received and number of council candidates they put forward, the LibDems are massively over-represented. The expectation of even numbers of panellists on all these current affairs shows the scale of the con that you continue to perpetuate – that of having an equal voice with the two main parties. By rights, you would be fairly represented if you had a panellist every other show. So quit your belly-aching.

by Mark from Wallingford on March 15, 2008 at 8:35 am. Reply #

Hm, three Tory trolls I’ve never seen before jump onto this particular thread to lecture us on how we shouldn’t dare aspire to any more cough-establishment-cough media coverage. Funny thing, ain’t it.

“After all, you Libs and the Labs are of the left.” That’s your reading of the positioning. Nowt to do with what we think, I’m afraid.

by Alix on March 15, 2008 at 8:59 am. Reply #

… and, Alix, overlooking the point about the pro-Conservative bias (which is at the expense of others too). Funny that, hey?

by Mark Pack on March 15, 2008 at 11:18 am. Reply #

It’s quite amazing how 19 are classified as Tory in the Journalist/Celebrity group.

Can you please name these people as quite frankly this classification is absurd.

by G Brownstuff on March 15, 2008 at 12:06 pm. Reply #


Don’t encourage them – look at it from their point of view. There is a significant strand of thought within Lib Dem-ery that everyone should agree with their point of view (suggesting that ALL the QT panelists should, by rights, be Lib Dems …)

The fact that many of the general population don’t regard this as a particularly liberal point of view (in fact, it is more redolent of a Marxist “our ideology will conquer the world” position) seems to have passed them by.

[of course, this may also be one reason why many of those who consider themselves liberal wouldn’t touch the Lib Dems with the proverbial barge pole]

But it does explain why a party which is currently polling around 15% complains when it doesn’t have a representation on QT of 40% (i.e. two panelists; one MP and one commentator).

All rather ironic given the Lib Dem position on PR.

by passing tory on March 15, 2008 at 1:15 pm. Reply #

Mr/Ms Brownstuff: the classification for each person was given in the original posting that kicked off the issue, so it’s there for you to see and question. I notice though that whilst you’re not alone in saying “these figures must be rubbish”, you (like the others) haven’t actually questioned any of the individual classifications.

Passing Tory: nice to see you fitted exactly the point made in my previous comment about the apparent blindness of Conservative supporters to the pro-Conservative bias in the QT panel 🙂

by Mark Pack on March 15, 2008 at 1:23 pm. Reply #

Mark, did I? Where.

My recollection looking at the graphs, was that the Tories were getting representation roughly equivalent to current voting intentions (approx 39% in average of current polls against 42% or so at QT; but the latter figure is only true if all the “right wing” commentators / celebs are classed as Tory). So there is a slightly higher proportion but this certainly isn’t at the expense of the Lib Dems, who are currently favoured more than this (currently polling 17% and getting approx 22% in QT, although again the latter figure depends very much how you assign commentators).

I imagine that the real squeeze is on the commentators for the fringe parties (they probably get their politicians invited proportionately, but have lower non-political representation; we could argue that the Lib Dems could be classified as a fringe party in this respect, although for you guys the politicans have a much greater than proportionate presence which roughly compensates).

So your point is what, exactly (other than you like arguing with Tories)?

by passing tory on March 15, 2008 at 2:57 pm. Reply #

I thought the issue was not that there was anti-Lib Dem bias (which on balance I don’t really accept, third party and all) but pro-Tory bias. This is something that McCullogh doesn’t even address. It’s just standard bureacratese waffle.

by James Graham on March 15, 2008 at 6:28 pm. Reply #

Pro-Tory bias? Now I’ve heard the BBC accused of just about everything.

by Laurence Boyce on March 15, 2008 at 6:32 pm. Reply #

For a party with only 16% of the vote I think the Lib Dems get far more covererage than they deserve, and given their refusal to listen to people on the referendum perhaps it is right we should not have to listen to them? Incidentally on the current pollings the SNP will have more MPs after the next election and will take the 3rd spot at PMQs, perhaps QT will follow suit?

by James Lees on March 15, 2008 at 7:02 pm. Reply #

James Lees that’s hilarious! Perhaps you should look at what we actually polled in 2005 though. And as for “refusal to listen to people on the referendum” – yes, because “the people” had expressed a unanimous view that they wanted a referendum on Lisbon hadn’t they. [Please note the heavy sarcasm here]. I thought MPs were elected to exercise their judgement on issues? Sure we should try to influence them, but at the end of the day, they make their decisions and we kick them in the ballot box, or not, come General election time.

James Graham makes the relevant point here. Question time regularly gives the Conservative party two (and sometimes three) voices on the panel. Why?

by Grammar PCSO on March 15, 2008 at 8:22 pm. Reply #

Passing Tory, I often wonder why you come here, although I’m quite happy to have you as you regularly remind me why I’m not a Conservative.

As to the “ironic” position on PR: it’s a by-product of our electoral system that many people vote to keep somone else out or because a particular party “can’t win” in an area. I’m fed up of the number of people who say, ‘I would vote Liberal Democrat, but they can’t win here/they won’t be in Government so I’ll vote Labour/Conservative’. You must have seen our polling at election time showing how many people would vote LD if they thought we could win?
Now, this benefits us electorally in some areas, but harms us in many more – so it doesn’t surprise me that in *national polls* we come rather low down.
I suspect with PR we’d poll in the low 20s at our best, with the rise of the fringe parties, but I think it would harm Labour and Cons more, and we’d see both of them unable to break the 30% mark. But at least it would actually reflect what people really thought.

by Grammar PCSO on March 15, 2008 at 8:33 pm. Reply #


I think you have misunderstood my post. The irony is in that there have been calls from Lib Dems on this blog to have e.g. a Lib Dem MP and a Lib Dem celeb on the same QT panel (i.e. 40% representation) when the party is polling only in the mid to high teens. The Tories are not particularly over-represented on QT (roughly on a par with current voting intentions – well ~3% over as compared to ~5% over for the Lib Dems) so if you believe in PR then it is somewhat hypocritical to then claim that QT should overrepresent the Lib Dems even more.

[These figures, incidentally, suggest that the BBC has pro-Lib Dem bias … well at least Laurence can add this to his collection of claims against the BBC 🙂 ]

This is completely distinct from whether supporting PR is a good policy or not.

As for why I post here; I am sure I have discussed this at length in the past so Google is your friend if you are actually curious.

by passing tory on March 16, 2008 at 12:34 am. Reply #

Admittedly, I’m not intending to look back and see (sorry got elections to fight) but I don’t remember particularly having seen calls on LDV for more Lib Dem representation on QT (there are some elements of my party though who feel we are underrepresented in the media – David Cameron merely has to say “I’m against bad things” and he gets media coverage. Same is true at a local level – sample local paper story near me: “Tory GLA candidate supports Tory Mayoral candidate”).
I have seen lots of people commenting here about how many known Tories are regularly on the QT panel. If a programme is balanced, is it ever really necessary to have more than one known parliamentarian/celebrity supporter from the three major parties? There are regularly at least two panelists promoting the Tory Party line.

Similarly, I’m more than happy for you to be here Passing Tory, I don’t need to go back and look at your posts. I’m not being facetious or insulting when I say that your posts often remind me of why I could never be in the Conservative party – you seem to be quite a liberal conservative (small ‘l’ and small ‘c’) as well as a Conservative. I’m not.

by Grammar PCSO on March 16, 2008 at 12:35 pm. Reply #


There have been explicit calls on LDV for greater Lib Dem representation on QT, both in articles and in comments.

In terms of the appropriateness of having more than one Tory: large political parties tend to be broad churches, and once you have core support above 30% then you are necessarily drawing support across a broad cross section of political space. It seems entirely reasonable under these circumstances for a QT panel to reflect different areas right of center. Otherwise it is very easy for a QT panel to be made up of four lefties and a Tory (and the comment about irony was targeting the fact that many Lib Dems, who supposedly believe in PR, don’t seem to see any problem with such an arrangement).

by passing tory on March 18, 2008 at 1:11 am. Reply #

Current polling and election trends are a very shaky foundation to base representation on any TV debating programme, as they reflect the specific questions posed in specific instances. But they are the best we have so we must make do and continue discussing it.

It would be also interesting to have this debate regarding ITV or C4 debating panels and if we then included the biases of supplementary commentary panels I’m sure any percentages would be more highly skewed than the QT figures we are quibbling about here.

The introduction of PR might upset the conventional truths accepted in many quarters of what general opinion amounts to, but until it is we will never know.

by Oranjepan on March 18, 2008 at 7:31 am. Reply #

Passing Tory: your second sentence applies just as much to the Labour Party as it does to the Conservative Party, yet Question Time has consistently overall had more Conservative than Labour panel members.

The problem has been that there has been a consistent pro-Conservative bias, which has been at the expense of others. Whatever you think that correct Lib Dem level should be, you’ve also got to justify why Labour has consistently had fewer guests (and that’s over a period of tme during which the polls have by no means all looked as they do at present).

Indeed, there is rather an irony with your and other comments consistently focusing on the level of Liberal Democrat representation when the original posting made precisely this point: “Even if you disagree with our notion of an appropriate level of Lib Dem representation, it is hard to see how the BBC can justify such a sustained bias in favour of the Tories and against Labour.”

by Mark Pack on March 18, 2008 at 7:44 am. Reply #


Indeed it does apply to Labour too, but then there is, on average, >1 Labour representative (nearly two, in fact). I don’t think I have argued against that anywhere, have I?

But “sustained bias in favour of the Tories and against Labour”? The party that gets consistently highest representation on QT relative to contemporary opinion polls is the Lib Dems, so maybe you should re-write this as “sustained bias in favour of the Lib Dems and against Labour”.

by passing tory on March 18, 2008 at 9:43 am. Reply #

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