Status anxiety

My plan for Question Time: mug up and fail anyway

All you can do is prepare, and hope you don’t fall flat on your face

7 March 2015

9:00 AM

7 March 2015

9:00 AM

I was invited on Question Time this week, which gave me a few sleepless nights. Natalie Bennett’s disastrous interview on LBC was a reminder that appearing on a current affairs programme in this febrile pre-election environment can be a bit of a minefield. Admittedly, I’m not the leader of a political party but that’s no guarantee I won’t make a fool of myself — a moment that will be preserved for ever on YouTube. There are no opportunities for glory on Question Time, but plenty for embarrassment. The most you can hope for is to get through the experience in one piece. By now you may well have seen what happened — but I am writing this on Tuesday evening, full of nerves.

My biggest fear is that someone might ask a ‘funny’ question. The second time I appeared on the programme in 2005 the final question of the evening was, ‘If the party leaders were animals, what animals would they be?’ David Dimbleby immediately turned to me and said, ‘Toby, you’re a witty fellow, how would you answer that one?’ I was completely stumped. Couldn’t think of anything remotely funny. I experienced what the leader of the Greens called ‘brain fade’. It was four years before I was asked back.

This will be my fifth appearance and, as before, I’ve done a fair amount of mugging up. It’s a bit like revising for an exam. You have no way of knowing exactly what questions will come up — the audience submit them on the night and the producers don’t give you any warning — but if you’ve been watching the news you can predict with some accuracy.


I’m reasonably sure someone will ask a question about the child sex abuse scandals in Rotherham and Oxfordshire and the Prime Minister’s proposals to make it a criminal offence for those in authority to wilfully neglect those at risk. I also think it’s likely that the issue of the radicalisation of young Muslims will come up, possibly in the form of a question about whether hate preachers should be banned from speaking at British universities.

One tip that veterans of the show have given me in the past is to familiarise yourself with the local issues. This particular edition of Question Time is being broadcast from Glasgow and I’m the only non-Scot on the panel, so at least half the questions are likely to be about Scotland. My guess is that we’ll get asked about at least one of the following three issues: the impact the coalition’s deficit-reduction programme has had on the Scottish economy, the possibility of a post-election pact between Labour and the SNP, and the desirability or otherwise of renewing Trident.

I’ve often heard conservatives complain that the BBC packs the audience with lefties so they’ll jeer and hiss whenever the Tory on the panel uses a stock phrase like ‘long-term economic plan’. Not true. The makers of the programme bend over backwards to try to ensure the audience contains a broad cross-section of political views. By definition, a majority of them won’t be Conservative voters, so in all likelihood I’ll be given a hard time. But that’s the country’s anti-Tory bias, not the BBC’s.

It will be interesting to see how well represented ‘Yes’ voters are in the audience and what formula the BBC uses when deciding how many to admit. Fifty-three per cent of Glaswegians voted in favour of independence last year, but since most of them are intending to vote SNP in the forthcoming election, it wouldn’t be fair on the other parties if they made up the majority.

Having said that, lots of SNP activists are deeply suspicious of what they perceive to be the BBC’s anti-independence bias, so they may well use subterfuge to smuggle their way in. On Monday a Twitter account calling itself ‘Scotland for independence’ tweeted a link to the website inviting people to sign up to be in the audience, accompanied by the following advice: ‘I recommend pretending you’re a red, blue or yellow Tory so you can be hand-picked by the British Biased Corporation.’

I’m probably overthinking this. I’m one of six panellists and if you allow for the fact that about a quarter of the time will be taken up by David Dimbleby interacting with members of the audience (usually the best bits), that leaves each panellist with seven and a half minutes of air time. It’s an awfully long way to go and an awful lot of preparation for just seven and a half minutes. But I’m too vain to say no. I just hope I don’t step on a landmine.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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Show comments
  • Al Cumming

    If you’re stumped, Toby, just do what Boris does – wave your hands about and say “Well, I, I, I, I, I, I, I… what was the question?”

    • WTF

      Being padded out with left wing wa****** the audience never understand the question for the most part so you could BS as apart from UKIP and people like Starkey, they wouldn’t understand the answers anyway.

  • Radford_NG

    Q.T.has long been a farce with its BBC selected audience.Each panelist should be allowed to bring along their own claque:[noun;(1)a group of sycophantic followers;(2)a group of people hired to applaud or heckle a performer].

  • Terry Field

    QT is a little slice of guardian insanity; Crumblebee should get the PC gong for heading ANY serious discussion off at the pass. It is the political equivalent of the Archers; thought control and blandness combined. The deadbeats they ask on are a joke. As for the audience; well it’s like upstairs downstairs – they certainly know their place.
    Are we certain that Crumblebee is actually alive? he may be motorised and held aloft like El Cid.

    • eric try

      I agree absolutely this programme is nothing but a showpiece for David Dimbleby

  • ant

    Whatever the questions make sure you pick a fight with the audience in general, Hitchens-style…

    • dalai guevara

      Yes, ask them what it would cost to build 500,000 ho….

      No, I was joking, ask them what they think it would cost to balance the budget. You have never seriously asked yourself that so perhaps someone out there can actually help you fix it.

      • Pacificweather

        What would it cost to balance the budget? Ending employer subsidies would help.

  • Stephen Milroy

    Just spout the new statesman and the audience will treat you fine…

  • Garry Gale

    You did Ok…Much better than Kezia Dugdale…. no wonder Labour in Scotland are in meltdown…. and Ruth Davidson was as measured and impressive as ever… if Scots had experienced more Tory’s like her the situation would be very different! I do hope that the SNP will sweep the boards come May… but can see the dangers of them not having any effective opposition. Interesting Times!

  • ColinPowis

    Last night on Question time was the first time that I’ve heard you speak and was much impressed by the political clarity of your mind ; I will be paying close attention in the future !

  • Jim Hicken

    Well impressed with your performance last night, all that homework paid off. Kezia Dugdale was out of her depth.

  • Tron

    I hope you didn’t look at Twitter while you were on Q.T. Toby.
    You received nothing but personal abuse and hate. No one mentioned the points you made.
    It is the same every Thursday on Twitter. Whoever is in the Right Wing Chair on QT (there is always only one) gets nasty insults and childish mockery. No attempt at argument.

  • Lydia Robinson

    I no longer watch this programme as I can’t stomach the whooping, screeching moronic audiences cheering on the various leftists they wheel out. One QT I actually attended was the infamous Nick Griffin one where he was publicly hung, drawn and quartered. I disagree with everything he says but that spectacle was a disgrace. The panellists in attendance who were polishing their virtuous halos were Chris Huhne (convicted criminal), Jack Straw (under investigation by his own party), and Baroness Warsi (she of the dubious Islamist friends.) Yet Griffin was supposedly the miscreant on this panel.

  • Innit Bruv

    A suggestion: don’t participate in the future and spare those with nothing better to do than watch such tosh the sight of your less than photogenic mug.
    Question Time along with Newsnight has had its day and should be scrapped.
    These programs do little more than provide employment for a lot of mediocrity at the
    license payer’s expense.

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