I Don’t Care Who the Next Host of BBC Question Time Is

Dan Kitwood/Getty

Who is going to replace David Dimbleby as the next host of BBCQuestion Time?

If your answer is “I’d rather suck out my eyeballs with a vacuum cleaner and fill the sockets with acid than give a damn about that noisome dross” then congratulations – you have the measure of possibly the grisliest political TV programme in the entire world, with the exception of the insanely left-wing Australian version Q&A which, amazingly, is even worse.

Question Time, for curious non-British viewers who’ve never had to endure it, is supposedly the blue riband of British political TV.

Each week, a panel of MPs plus a token real-ish person has to sit in front of an audience carefully selected for its left-wing bias in order to answer dreary, dumb-arsed questions invariably demanding the renationalisation of the railways, the beatification (prior to full sainthood) of the NHS, or asking why it is that the government isn’t spending more money on everything. Plus there’s usually a boring local one about the bus service in Dumfriesshire or the badger cull or the cottage hospital which is on the verge of closing.

Read the rest at Breitbart.

Brexit Might Actually Win This Referendum. Here’s Why…

I’m reluctant to talk about it because I don’t want to jinx it. As I was saying to Toby Young on our podcast the other day, it feels as deliciously unlikely as going to a bar and accidentally picking up a supermodel. There she is laughing at your jokes, playing footsie with you under the table and you’re thinking: “Bloody hell! This is unreal! In just a few hours from now I could be romping naked with this vision of outrageous loveliness.” But you also know that if the Fates catch you being too cocky they’ll punish you for your hubris and do something awful, like revealing that the person you’ve actually pulled is Bruce Jenner.

Problem is, as a professional journalist, it is rather my duty to report the facts as I see them. And the facts as I see them seem to be pointing tantalisingly towards rampant sex with that supermodel. Possibly not just with one but with several, every day for the rest of our lives.

Yes, it’s still improbable – at least so far as the bookies are concerned. But whenever I nurture any doubts, all I have to do is open a newspaper or turn on the TV and see for myself just how incredibly badly the Remain campaign is screwing this one up and how well the Leave team are winning over the hearts and minds of the undecided.

What strikes me most is the difference in mood and tone: Remain sound shrill, petulant, pessimistic; Leave come across as amiable, reasonable, optimistic. And which of those sides would any open-minded person prefer to be on?

Consider last night’s referendum debate on ITV.

It pitched – for the Remain camp – SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon; Labour Shadow Business Secretary Angela Eagle; Tory Climate Change Secretary Amber Rudd against – for Leave – Labour MP Gisela Stuart; Tory MP (and Rudd’s junior minister in her Climate Change department) Andrea Leadsom; and a token blond male former Mayor of London called Boris Johnson.

The Leave team were plausible, dignified, positive, level-headed. Stuart – a German speaking with soft persuasiveness for British values and sovereignty: yay! – may well be the most effective weapon in Leave’s armoury; Leadsom marked herself with her eloquence and passion as a potential future Tory prime minister; Johnson reined in his flamboyance, played it straight and gallantly left the ladies to steal the limelight.

Read the rest at Breitbart.

I Totally Take Back Everything I’ve Ever Said about Queen’s Brian May…

Just a quick one: was anyone else as surprised and delighted as I was by Brian May’s performance on BBC Question Time last night?

I’ve been quite rude about him in the past. Yes, that distinctively shimmery, echoey, almost Venusian guitar of his did provide part of the soundtrack to my youth – I seem to remember getting to third base for the first time to the accompaniment of Night At The Opera – but what I’ve never quite forgiven are his politics.

As a countryman and nature lover, for example, I feel every bit as passionately about wildlife as he does. Which is one of the reasons I’m so much in very favour of the badger cull, as I argue in more detail here.

Apart from the Ford Mondeo the badger has no natural predator, so since in the early 1980s legislation made it illegal to kill badgers, their population has rocketed to unsustainable levels. The consequences have been disastrous: TB in both badgers and cattle has soared; hedgehog and ground-nesting bird populations have been devastated; farmers’ livelihoods have been destroyed; vast sums of taxpayers’ money — the figure last year was £100 million — have been squandered; and Britain is now at risk of having an EU ban on all its beef and dairy exports, at a cost to the economy of more than £2 billion a year.

May, on the other hand, has positioned himself at the forefront of the shrill and self-righteous anti-badger cull movement, which unfortunately has attracted the very worst elements of the animal rights movement, and appears to be motivated more by sentiment and cherry-picked data than it does by hard evidence.

But while I haven’t changed my views on badgers, I’ve definitely shifted my stance on May.

Last night, as the panel’s licensed jester – the token celebrity who can ride whatever hobby horses he wishes – he could all too easily have spouted the sub-Russell-Brand drivel we’ve come to expect on Question Time. Instead, he was a model of decency and sweet reasonableness.

This was especially noticeable in his behaviour towards fellow panelist Nigel Farage.

It really ought to have been a very tough evening for Farage. And it certainly began that way. Every question he had from the audience was hostile, starting of course with one about him being “snarling, thin-skinned, aggressive”. Even if you’re not a fan – which I still am – I think it would be hard to deny how well Farage acquitted himself – never showing signs of umbrage taken, cheerfully getting his political points in a way that, ever so slowly, began to win the audience round and earn him some actual claps.

None of this would have been possible, though, without the unlikely support he got from his fellow panelists. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt – most definitely not rhyming slang, on last night’s showing – led the way with some generous remarks. But what really clinched it was Brian May, who absolutely refused to pick on an easy target and instead took the opportunity to deplore the nastiness of politics in general and, by implication, the treatment of Farage in particular.

This, in turn, gave the audience the permission they needed to stop poking the chained up bear with their sticks.

If you haven’t watched it, you should. Question Time at its best. Almost restores your faith in human decency.

Almost.

Read the rest at Breitbart London

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Free Speech Is Ddead in Britain. I Learned This on a BBC Programme Called Free Speech

November 20, 2014

Is it just my imagination or was there a widely publicised report a few weeks ago by a professor called Alexis Jay describing in clinical detail how at least 1400 mostly underage girls were groomed, drugged and raped over a period of years in the northern town of Rotherham by gangs of men from predominately Kashmiri-Pakistani Muslim backgrounds?

The reason I ask is that earlier this week, I was publicly called a liar, an Islamophobe and a racist for mentioning this fact on a BBC TV debate programme called – laughably – Free Speech. “Boo! Hiss!” went the studio audience. “Not true” went the silly girl panelist sitting to my left. “List one contemporary problem facing Britain that’s NOT the fault of Muslims? Are there any in your mind?” said someone on Twitter with evidently strong and somewhat unnerving radical Islamist sympathies.

It’s normally at this point in the proceedings that the moderator comes to your rescue. I know Jonathan or David Dimbleby would have done. Grumble though I do on occasion about the leftist bias of their respective programmes Any Questions and Question Time, the fact remains that the Dimblebys are bright, scrupulous, supremely well-informed professionals. No way would they allow it to go unchallenged if one of their panelists said something that was perfectly true only to have the rest of the panel and (almost) the entire audience to shout him down as a racist, Islamophobic liar.

But the same, unfortunately, could not be said for the moderators on this particular programme, which was evidently designed as a kind of looser, more youthful version of Question Time, aimed at the 16 to 34-year old demographic. They pointed the mics willy nilly at panelists and members of the audience with little regard to the sense – or nonsense – of what was being said.

Certainly, there was no evidence of any presiding intelligence shaping the show or the direction and balance of the debate. For all the difference the Blue-Peter-level moderation made, we could have been talking about Miley Cyrus’s twerking moves or Kim Kardashian’s bum, rather than about highly contentious, very serious and potentially dangerous issues like so-called “rape culture” and the radicalisation of young British Muslims.

Afterwards various viewers who had been appalled as I was by this car crash of debate asked why I’d volunteered for it. “Why go on James? It’s like stepping into the cretins’ den,” said one. Other comments from sympathisers included: “I had to turn it off,”; “You must have the patience of a saint after last night’s “Free Speech”,” It’s not a debate, more a left-wing hate-session against anyone daring not to conform”; “Have watched you on the BBC last night. I have to say that even growing up in communist Poland I have rarely seen such a shameless set up and left wing propaganda show. I admire your courage really.”

And the answer is: definitely not for the money. (£150 in case you wondered). No, the reason you do these things is partly in the naive hope that this time it will be different – that for once you’ll find a BBC debate programme where your function isn’t to play the token right-wing nutcase for the torture-porn delight of an audience of rabid lefties. And also because someone has to put the alternative viewpoint across, otherwise all you’re going to get is a bunch of people spouting the usually right-on, progressive cant and just agreeing with one another. If no one does this, then the enemy will have won.

So that’s why I did it but, God, I almost wish I hadn’t….

Read the rest at Breitbart London

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Why We Need More Conservative Madrassas

More dismal politics

Question Time: celebrating the cosy consensus

Question Time: celebrating the cosy consensus

Watching another dismal episode of the BBC’s Question Time last week, I realised why British politics is in such a dire state. It’s because the language of debate has been hijacked so comprehensively by the liberal left that not even conservatives dare speak up for right-wing views any more for fear of being dismissed as extremist.

By “right wing” I don’t mean anti-semitic, xenophobic, “racist”, “sexist” or any of the other glib caricatures routinely imposed on us by the left. I simply mean believing, as I do, that a society is at its most fruitful, happy and successful when individuals are left free to live their lives unburdened by all but the bare minimum of taxation or regulation, where time-honoured traditions and institutions (be they the family, or the church or the military) are cherished, where politicians are our servants not our masters, and where equality of opportunity may be a desirable thing – but DEFINITELY not equality of outcome.

What liberal-left organisations like the BBC have managed very successfully to do is frame the debate in such a way that such opinions aren’t even up for discussion. On Question Time last week, for example, the first question (given unfeasibly large quantities of impossibly boring airtime by the complicitous chairman David Dimbleby) was about Michael Ashcroft and Tory party funding; another was about one of the killers of James Bulger; another was about the Chilcott inquiry. None of them enabled any of the panel seriously to address any of the major problems facing our country today. The Bulger one was merely an opportunity for a bit of tabloid-columnist-style moral posturing. The other two were essentially about political process.

Political process is solely a left-liberal preoccupation. For libtards it is an article of faith that political activity of any kind must perforce be a good thing because it involves two of their favourite things – government intervention and changing the status quo. What libtards don’t like is big ideas – liberty; empiricism; small state; low taxation . That’s because these are right-wing arguments which they will always lose. Hence their tendency to shut down the debate whenever they can by shifting the argument ad hominem.

I’ve noticed this same technique much in use in the student-rag left-liberal blogosphere, of late, over the small matter of the Young Britons Foundation. Because  the YBF’s splendid, funny and ideologically sound chairman Donal Blaney has called his organisation a “madrassa” for young conservatives, Guardianistas and redbrick-junior-common-room-Spartists have seized on it as evidence is that the YBF is some kind of borderline terrorist organisation. Eh? As I mentioned earlier, I addressed the YBF in the Commons last week, and extremist is the very last word I’d use to describe them. “Not nearly extremist enough” would be my preferred definition of these pallid young politicos. These kids have been so effectively brainwashed by the propaganda of socialists like Ken Livingstone, Tony Benn, Ken Clarke, Dave Cameron et al, they actually think “progressive” means something worthwhile and that “investment” is what you do when you squander money you haven’t got on the least efficient healthcare system in the known universe.

As I said to them last week, “Unless you understand why it is that conservatism is the ONLY political philosophy that works, unless you are capable of appreciating – and explaining – why it is not merely the philosophy of self-interest and expediency but also the one which leads to by far the happiest outcomes for by far the most people, then there is NO POINT IN YOUR BEING A ****ING CONSERVATIVE at all.”

There is not much we can do to change the BBC insidious leftism, unfortunately. But what we can try to do is restore some backbone to conservatism and – if this is what the YBF is trying to do then we should applaud it. Until  conservatives can learn to stop being embarrassed about their ideology, Broken Britain is never going to be fixed.

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Question Time: Is That Panel Really the Best They Can Do?

Nick Griffin is the greatest orator since Pericles. He has gravitas such as we have not witnessed since Winston Churchill’s “blood, toil, tears and sweat” speech. His rapier wit makes Oscar Wilde sound like John Prescott. He has the encyclopaedic knowledge of a Paul Johnson; the courage of Charles Upham VC and bar; the loveability of Stephen Fry; the dramatic power of Fiona Shaw in some exceptionally moving new play about a lesbian who is slowly tortured to death by homophobic society…

Actually not – though you wouldn’t guess it from the general, angst-ridden debate about who best should be fielded against the BNP leader on tonight’s Question Time.

Nick Cohen has the details:

By this weekend, nervy producers were hitting the phones as they began to realise the 1,001 ways the show could go wrong. One minute, they booked Douglas Murray. He runs the Centre for Social Cohesion, which examines neo-Nazi, Islamist and other extremism in Britain. But he is also from the right, and so, the BBC reasoned, could tell the audience that it was possible to worry about immigration without being compelled to vote BNP. Murray was more than ready to take Griffin on, but the next minute the BBC called back with second thoughts. If he were to say anything in favour of immigration controls, Griffin would look like he was the voice of consensus. As confused call followed confused call, Murray formed the impression the BBC did not know what to do.

Nor do the political parties. Originally, the Conservatives put up Michael Gove, one of their best debaters. Then they decided that, as a British Asian, Lady Warsi would be the ideal face of progressive conservatism and a living rebuttal of BNP prejudice. So she would, had she not run a nasty campaign against the sitting Labour MP in Dewsbury in the 2005 election. In white areas, she declared that she would campaign “for British identity and British citizens” and fight the menace of mass immigration. In Muslim areas, the flag appeared in leaflets in a blood-spattered montage of Tony Blair and George Bush and troops in Iraq, while underneath it she played to religious homophobia by claiming that Labour was allowing children to be propositioned for homosexual relationships.

Jack Straw is a more formidable politician, but as a series of leaks to the Observer in 2006 showed, he spent a part of his time as foreign secretary trying to “engage” with the Muslim Brotherhood, an organisation that, in its origins and policies towards women, Jews and gays, is not so different from the BNP. So assiduous did Straw’s attempts at “engagement” become, the British ambassador to Egypt warned him he was engaging for the sake of engagement, and that there was no prospect of Britain being able “to influence the Islamists’ agenda”.

Me, I think the whole panel is pretty low-grade and that this particular edition wouldn’t even be worth watching if it weren’t for the Griffin factor. Bonnie Greer is too palpably nice and reasonable; Baroness Warsi’s talent is overrated beyond measure; Jack Straw (see Cohen above) is a dhimmi; and Chris Huhne – Chris Who?

At least Griffin’s likely to say something interesting, which is, after all, the point of Question Time is it not? It’s about entertainment. Gladiator sport. It’s not – though it’s amazing how many media commentators appear to think otherwise – the official occasion on which all the main parties gather together to make it quite clear how much they abhor racism. Duh! We knew that already. Now tell us what you think about immigration and Islamism. Otherwise Nick Griffin’s going to win more votes still.

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I’m Glad That the BNP’s Nick Griffin Is Appearing on Question Time

Well I’m sorry, but I am. I’m glad for various reasons, some of which have to do with freedom of speech and the democratic right of political parties which have won seats in local councils and in Europe to be represented on Britain’s main political debating programme.

Mainly, though, I’m glad because of the discomfiture it has caused among the chattering-idiot classes. Though personally I despise the BNP – as I do all parties of the left – the people I despise only marginally less are the ones who go round boasting about how incredibly outraged they are about how disgusting and wrong it is that Nick Griffin is appearing on Question Time.

“I don’t think you have ANY idea about how incredibly, amazingly un-racist I am,” runs the subtext of their boasting. “I am SO unracist that if I’d been around 250 years ago, do you know who I would have been? William Wilberforce, that’s who. Except if I’d been William Wilberforce I wouldn’t have stopped with banning slavery, no sirree. I would have made anti-race-hatred of any description so completely compulsory that there wouldn’t be a single piece of race hatred anywhere left in the world by now. We’d all be like ebony and ivory, living together in perfect harmony, side by side on the keyboard, just like on Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney on a piano. Only more harmonious than that even. Races and creeds wouldn’t exist any more. We’d all have skins made up of whatever colour you get when black and brown and white and yellow are all mixed together. A sort of beigey ecru, maybe. Cos that’s how anti-racist I am!”

It’s not just the nauseating smugness and self-righteousness of all these daringly outspoken Nick-Griffin-/BNP-haters that annoys me. Its the sheer fatuousness. In fact I can safely say that the moment I hear a person tell me how much they hate the BNP and/or how cross they are that Nick Griffin is appearing on Question Time, I know with absolute certainty that I can safely discount any political opinion they have on any other subject whatsoever. (Especially on Anthropogenic Global Warming, which they’re bound to believe is the second most serious threat to the world after racism, and sometimes even more serious than that!!!!)

Indeed, their sheer fatuousness is not merely annoying but actively dangerous – as Fraser Nelson points out on one of his ever-insightful blogs over at Spectator Coffee House. What this general, knee-jerk “oooh it’s the BNP! They’re racist! Pass the smelling salts!” response does is to lend further legitimacy to all the main parties’ ongoing refusal to address the real reasons why the BNP wins so many votes.

As Fraser says:

Some of their views (anti-EU, anti-mass immigration) are that of the mainstream in Britain but find no Westminster representation. Their racist views have no traction in a Britain which is perhaps the most tolerant country on earth. But on the stump, they campaign on other issues – including Westminster sleaze. To denounce them as a racist party ignores not only their multifaceted campaign style, but the concerns of the million-odd voters who backed them.

Exactly. So do remember that all you BNP-haters, next time you dare to venture – with the courage and deep insight which are your wont – how jolly disgusting you think Nick Griffin is. There’s no better recruiting sergeant for his cause than a dumb white liberal.

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David Dimbleby Interview: Celebrating 30 Years of ‘Question Time’

The host talks terrified politicians, MPs’ expenses and why he told David Starkey to ‘shut up’

David Dimbleby, ‘Question Time’ host for the past 15 years, at home in Sussex

It’s a glorious late summer’s morning at David Dimbleby’s palatial Sussex residence on the edge of the South Downs. (At least I’m guessing it’s palatial – he did, after all, once sell his family newspaper business for £12 million – but our interview is being conducted well away from journalists’ prying eyes in the agreeable converted barn he uses as an office.)

Among the off-limits subjects we shan’t be discussing today are: His first wife, (cookery writer) Josceline; their three grown-up children (including successful restaurant entrepreneur Henry); his second wife, Belinda; their 11-year-old boy Fred; his little brother (and alleged massive rival) Jonathan; the BBC; his personal politics; his hobbies; pretty much any other aspect of his private life whatsoever.

Dimbleby, 70, has been chairing it for 15 years now. Sufficient time to confound all those critics who predicted he was too genteel or too reserved (or even too old, some said) to make any impact in the role made famous by the irascible, flamboyant, bow-tie-wearing Sir Robin Day (and rather less famous by the interim office holder Peter Sissons).

‘I don’t think he’d approve at all of the way I do it,’ he says of Sir Robin. ‘Robin always placed himself at the centre of the programme, whereas I’ve tried to do the exact opposite.’

The two worked together for a decade, covering party conferences for the BBC. Dimbleby remembers Sir Robin coming back from an interview he’d done with the Home Secretary and asking what he thought. ‘Well I don’t think he said anything particularly new,’ said Dimbleby thoughtfully. ‘Not his answers, you fool. My questions,’ Sir Robin said.

Dimbleby has a mischievous sense of humour. Later, by way of illustrating the kind of routine he has heard perhaps just one time too many from the Question Time panel, he breaks into an impromptu impersonation of Tony Benn. ‘What people forget ish that I wash in the Shecond World War. Don’t tell me about war. I know what war ish like. I wash a fighter pilot. I know how terrible war is.’

Together with his quick, ready wit, this puckishness can make him a deadly host. We saw a splendid example of this recently in his skewering of Tory Party chairman Eric Pickles. Pickles was flounderingly attempting to justify why his parliamentary duties made it absolutely essential for him to keep a second taxpayer-subsidised home, despite the fact that his principal residence is only 37 miles from Westminster.

The problem with parliament is that you have to be there at 9.30am on the dot, said Pickles. Dimbleby’s interjection was at once light-heartedly teasing and utterly merciless. ‘Like a job, you mean?’ he chipped in, to gales of audience laughter.

‘Eric Pickles did a thing which is absolutely fatal on Question Time: he tried to flatter and schmooze the audience,’ Dimbleby says. ‘You can’t do that because the audience is made up of people who watch Question Time. They’re up for it and well briefed.’

Personally, I find Question Time audiences terrifying. In another age, I can imagine them in mobs chasing old women down the street and baying: ‘Burn the witch!’

Not only do their politics come across as aggressively, cantishly liberal-left (the episode immediately post 9/11 being a particularly egregious offender, when a viciously anti-American audience howled down the US Ambassador), but they seem worryingly susceptible to cheering the most outrageous drivel, including the, to my mind, meaningless platitudes delivered by regular panellist Shami Chakrabarti.

Needless to say, Dimbleby begs to differ. Indeed, he believes the audience are the most important part of the programme. ‘I tell them this before it starts. I say: “It’s your programme and you must say what you think”,’ he says. And they generally do, groaning and booing and saying ‘rubbish’ whenever they sense one of the panellists is talking out of his hat.

‘Quite often you’ll have a minister coming up to me afterwards and saying: “I never realised they felt so strongly about that issue”.’ And no, he insists, the audience isn’t biased. How can it possibly be when it is carefully selected to represent as broad as possible a cross-section of society?

For the 150 places on each programme there are an average 500 applicants. These applications are then vetted by a ‘professional woman’ who spends an entire week sifting through them.

First, they are divided on party political lines; then by age, by sex and by ethnic make-up (the last weighted according to the broadcast location: for example, more blacks and Asians for an inner-London programme than for one in Cheltenham). Finally, to weed out any faint-hearts, they are told: ‘You realise this isn’t a programme to watch. It’s a programme to take part in.’

This month, Question Time celebrates its 30th birthday. It was born on September 25 1979, more by accident than design, and was never intended to last. The BBC had block-booked a London studio for the Parkinson show.

But, by Roy Hattersley’s account, ‘the governors decided that five consecutive nights of Michael Parkinson was more entertainment than the viewers could stand. So two days were set aside for something solemn. Robin Day – out of fashion but with years of his contract still to run – had nothing to do except write angry letters to the Director-General denouncing the declining standards of British television. Question Time was invented to make sure that for a week or two neither the theatre’s rent nor the performer’s retainer were paid in vain.’

The reason it has survived so long, believes Dimbleby, is its ‘simple formula’. ‘It meets an obvious public need: for politicians to be questioned by the public.’ But what it very much isn’t, he adds, is an updated version of the Brains Trust. ‘This isn’t a BBC presentation of British politics as the BBC sees it. It’s an entertainment programme, designed to excite people about political ideas.’

To this end, Dimbleby is not averse to encouraging a bit of argy bargy. Sometimes, he jabs in the sword himself; sometimes it comes from the mutual animosity of the panellists, as during the infamous episode when Private Eyeeditor Ian Hislop laid into Mary Archer (voted by viewers as their all-time favourite Question Time moment); and sometimes from his beloved audience, as when during the memorable broadcast from Grimsby – just as the Telegraph’s MP expenses scandal story was beginning to break – they tore into the MPs on the panel with relentless savagery.

‘Mrs Beckett, when are you going to give back the £72,000 you’ve taken after your mealie-mouthed answer trying to explain yourself? And Mr Campbell, how the HELL do you get through £800 a month on food?’ asked an angry-sounding woman.

‘It was an electrifying edition,’ Dimbleby recalls. ‘Everybody’s eyes were out on stalks, for here was the voice that terrified politicians. It was the first time they had met an audience since the expenses scandal broke, and the audience were ready to tell them exactly what they thought.’

It had a dramatic effect on the ratings too, causing audience figures to leap from 2.8 million to 3.8 million – a level at which it has more or less held since. To Dimbleby, this is further evidence that the expenses scandal marks a watershed in political history. ‘In 45 years I’ve never seen such a great gulf between politicians and the public.’

Indeed, he feels almost sorry for them. ‘It’s difficult for politicians. They claim to be part of the real world but they’re so protected from it their contact actually tends to be a bit sketchy. What they all believe and what the public believe are not the same thing.’

The best Question Times, he says, are ones where there’s a ‘whiff of danger – a feeling that someone is going to be derailed or fight a good point’. He likes the idea of a show ‘living on its nerves, unleashing the audience on an unsuspecting politician and encouraging intellectual conflict’. At the same time, he wants to give everyone a fair say – but not to the point where they start ‘pontificating’.

He has a fairly relaxed policy on personal abuse. ‘Politicians have got broad shoulders. Douglas Alexander didn’t seem to mind too much when David Starkey called him a “silly little man”.’

Starkey, in turn, was expected to take it on the chin when Dimbleby told him to ‘shut up’. (‘It’s the sort of language he uses and he was being so rude to the audience.’)

As for the episode when Hislop had a go at Mary Archer (‘Whenever the Prime Minister is accused of sleaze his first response is: “Look at all the Tories who are in jail.” Your husband is the reason Tony Blair gets away with it in parliament’), Dimbleby felt no urge to step in. ‘She tried to play the “poor me” card and Ian called her on it,’ he says.

I try to draw Dimbleby on his favourite Question Time moments but it’s no use – first, because he doesn’t remember (‘I never watch the programme and when it’s over all I’m thinking about is making the next one as good as it can be’) and second, because of his cautiousness when venturing anything that might sound like a political opinion.

Reading between the lines, though, it’s obvious that the politicians who most delight him are the Machiavellian operators (at one point, he goes into near raptures about the way someone like Lord Mandelson can say one thing with words, and the opposite with his ‘wryness of tone’ and his ‘signals with his hands and eyes’) and the ‘principled’ ones, like Geoff Hoon and Harriet Harman, who don’t run away from trouble. ‘However rough the water is, they’ll always come on the programme because they believe in their cause,’ Dimbleby says.

It’s a safe bet that he holds what he calls the ‘refuseniks’ – politicians who won’t come on the programme – in much lower esteem. Among these are Gordon Brown (no appearance since Labour came to power in 1997), Tony Blair (last appeared 2001), John Prescott, Jack Straw, John Reid and David Blunkett.

According to one of the show’s producers, politicians are more scared of going on Question Time than they are of being on Newsnight. Ann Widdecombe still shudders at an episode recorded in the dog days of the Major government when, as she sat down, the audience booed. Frank Dobson said his advice to a colleague about the show would be not to go on it.

Dimbleby’s explanation is that politicians can’t bear being out of control. ‘What they most dislike is the unexpected, the question that catches them off guard and the humiliation of being publicly mocked. BBC interviewers do not mock, Question Time audiences sometimes do,’ he once said.

The politicians prepared to brave the programme are provided by their parliamentary offices with extensive briefing notes and often coaching sessions, too, so that they know what their party’s official line is on any issue likely to arise. No panellist knows what the questions will be until they’re asked. Audience members submit a question the night before and the production team decides which ones to put forward.

Some subjects seem to excite an audience far more than others. As a rule, Dimbleby says, you won’t get much of a response if you talk about parliamentary matters, the BBC, or tricky ethical issues like euthanasia, abortion or IVF.

Far more ‘bankable’ are subjects like knife crime, drunkenness, drugs, the NHS, Afghanistan and, above all, the Iraq war. ‘That always gets people going,’ he says of the latter.

The biggest improvement to the programme since he has been at the helm, Dimbleby says, was the decision to increase the size of the panel from four to five. ‘The politicians all hate it because they have less time to speak and it means they can no longer gang up as they did to squash the hapless journalist or comedian on the panel.’

Doesn’t he find himself cringing, though, at the inanities that sometimes pour forth from celebrity panellists like Jarvis Cocker or Will Young?

‘Of course we’re taking a big risk when we have comedians and singers and showbiz types generally, but it’s a risk worth taking. Some of them, like Frank Skinner and Marcus Brigstocke, are excellent. And when you have someone like Will Young on, you’ll get perhaps 300,000 to 400,000 new viewers, none of whom will have watched the programme before.’

It has a high proportion of under 25 viewers, giving it by far the biggest youth profile of any political programme. Among the most popular guests, as voted for mostly by its younger viewers, are Tony Benn, Shirley Williams, Michael Heseltine, Boris Johnson and, yes, Shami Chakrabarti.

Needless to say, Dimbleby won’t tell me what he thinks of any of these people himself. He once said that he thought journalists with too strong a political position sometimes blinded themselves to important stories. Does this mean that over the years he has managed so perfectly to hone his position of neutrality that he no longer has any political views of his own?

‘I do have very strong political views,’ he says. ‘But as with most people, I’m a muddle of opinions, with views that don’t tally precisely with those of any particular party. I never tell anyone how I vote. Not my children. Nor my wife.’

As he says this, his eyes twinkle in that familiar David Dimbleby way you see on television when he’s said something catty and wants to soften the blow.

‘Crikey, what an operator!’ I think, at the end, when he engages me in some mildly flattering banter about an article of mine. He charms but never lays it on so thick that you feel you’re being practised on.

Imagine if he’d gone into politics: he could have been so devastatingly manipulative that he would have made even Lord Mandelson look like a clumsier version of John Prescott. Thank the Lord that instead he stuck to television.

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