It always stuck me as a recipe for disaster that BBC Question Time often relies on the presenter referring to audience members by their perceived gender + an item of clothing/hairstyle so that the sound crew can ensure the question they’re about to ask is picked up by a microphone and that the camera can spin round and zoom in on them.

With all the lights and energy of an important current affairs TV show, not to mention a busy panel with sometimes very obnoxious political guests it does seem to be asking a lot of the host to keep things moving along and be able to pick out audience members with their hands up, without causing any offence.

Over the years we’ve had identifying features along the lines of ‘the lady in the very bright dress’, ‘the older bald gentleman in the tie’, ‘the man with the long beard…’ or better still ‘the lady in the red dress behind the large gentleman in the black shirt’.

It’s not that there’s anything terribly wrong with these examples. Just that I’ve always thought it was clumsy and distracts from and trivialises the programme itself and the topics under discussion. The presenter is drawing our attention to the physical appearance of the audience, simply so that they can ask a question. It doesn’t seem to make for good TV and it doesn’t seem a very respectful way to treat people.

Now, current Question Time host Fiona Bruce has apologised for referring to one audience member as ‘the black guy…’, and the BBC edited out the comment from the repeat and iPlayer versions of the show. This was picked up in sections of the media and led to a debate on social media with some people saying ‘black guy’ was merely an innocent descriptor, others stating they considered it an example of racism, some saying the apology wasn’t enough, others saying the BBC feeling the need to apologise is evidence of the world going mad.

This blog isn’t the place for that debate but it is telling that the BBC apologised to the individual in question and made the edit. They clearly don’t believe it represents Question Time at its best. And while that particular example involved the serious issue of race, my point would be that referring to fashion choices, facial hair and outward appearance of gender just isn’t the best way to operate these days. Can’t a programme of this calibre do better than that?

The absence of an immediate solution shouldn’t lead us to accept the status quo as ‘good enough’. This is one of the BBC’s most important programmes. It should be a beacon of excellence at all times. I totally understand the BBC doesn’t want to interrupt the flow of what is now a live programme (on BBC iPlayer) and making everyone submit their names and questions in advance would damage spontaneity and might put some people off. Could people hold up signs with first names or initials on them? Or even a letter and number that relates to a section of seating, so the crew would quickly know the approximate area to turn to? You could even vary the ‘hands up’, so some put their thumbs up, or make an ‘o’ sign with their thumb and forefinger, or clench their fists. This would provide differentiating identifiers that have nothing to do with physical appearance, race or gender.

Each week, there are only a small number of questions taken from the audience in this way. Many are approved in advance and the person referred to by name. I think making the small change I’m suggesting would improve things greatly.

And what should you do, if you’re addressing an audience and taking a question from someone you can’t refer to by name? Would Fiona Bruce’s comments have been less of an issue if she’d referred to ‘the bald gentleman with the dark complexion’? Is it ‘black guy’ that caused the issue? Perhaps because that form of words is seen as reducing his status, or because often ‘black guy’ was used not as a descriptor but as the start of a dismissive insult?

It seems to me, that as a society, we’ve decided we won’t be divided by race. While we are all free to identify ourselves in anyway we choose, it feels wrong when someone else uses race to do that identifying for us. You can see the same thing happening with gender too. Many of us think nothing of Fiona Bruce referring to ‘the gentleman’, or ‘the lady’, but that in itself could be fraught with risk these days. And I think that’s one of the issues with Fiona Bruce’s comment last week. It feels wrong. It seems out of step with how we do things these days.

And so, I’d like the producers of BBC Question Time to see if they can do better. And I’d like you, in any situation where you’re speaking to an audience, to try to avoid referencing race, gender, facial hair or items of clothing. It’s a minefield. Stick to describing the position in the room. Your audience isn’t expecting the same high standards of production as a BBC 1 show, so it’s less of an issue if the camera has to stay on a wide shot while the question is asked, or it takes a few moments for the microphone to get to the right person. You could even use a co-presenter, holding a microphone, who can roam around the audience, making their own decisions about who to take questions from and going straight to them.

There’s always another way. Don’t put up with something that isn’t as good as it can be.

Categories: Media