I try really hard not to watch Question Time on BBC1. Perhaps it is because I ﬁnd David Dimbleby an ineffectual Chair, perhaps it is because I can guarantee Scotland will be mentioned with sneers and condescension or maybe it is because the whole format is just tired, jaded and run its course. A long, long time ago when there was still a degree of separation from politicians and the public, it was a respected political discussion show and the panel were accorded a level of dignity and respect due simply to their career choice. Nowadays things are, quite rightly, very different in that our elected members are much more accountable and approachable to their electorate but it also feels that mannerly behaviour towards them has been eroded alongside the detachment they once enjoyed.
The rise in the popularity of social media has escalated this to another level. No longer do you have to complain face to face or by a handwritten letter that took time to compose and post – in the space of a few seconds, you can make your objections known to the entire world and not just the object of your derision. Politicians are routinely referred to by their surname in a manner designed to show disrespect but you can imagine the row if the author was in turn referred to by their surname only. Comments are quickly agreed with by what sometimes seems like a pack mentality in a medium where ﬁction is oft presented as fact and used without question or check. Responses from the person concerned are sometimes ignored, sometimes denied but frequently dismissed as minds have already been made up.
If somebody disagrees with a stance that a politician is taking or feels that they aren’t doing anything, the level of vitriol typed from a keyboard, virtual or otherwise, can be quite shocking. No longer do people have to think about what they are saying or deal with the consequences of the effect of these words on somebody because social media has altered our perception of how interaction works; our thoughts at that precise moment and time are on a computer screen and can be deleted if need be and not to a physical presence when once uttered, can never be undone – it is similar to a toddler who believes that because they can’t see you, you can’t see them; as you didn’t actually say the words out loud, then they didn’t hurt anyone. The realisation that their words are available for almost anybody to see also appears to have escaped many and sometimes when you see a comment, you are taken aback as it completely alters the belief you had of the author as being an intelligent, well rounded individual.
This week we heard of the rise in security measures taken against MPs and I assume the same for MSPs. Dr Lisa Cameron described how the abuse and intimidation started immediately upon her election and targeted her entire family. As she said, her election appeared to make her fair game and it is incredible that simply by changing career and not character, you can become the target for such behaviour. Until all such abuse is reported and acted upon, things are only going to get worse.
And back to Question Time. I tuned in a couple of weeks ago when it was broadcast from Glasgow and was amused to see support for independence at the beginning of the programme as it did not reﬂect how the show routinely plays out. Many others remarked on this after the show and I did naively hope that we were in for a change of format to a healthy and respectful forum where debate topic was led by the audience and not corralled into the viewpoint that the producer wanted to portray to the country. I watched again this week and was disappointed but not surprised to see the open hostility shown to Joanna Cherry MP from the SNP by the audience. How quickly we have fallen from a leader of the UK to the dregs of society – “get back in your box and do what you’re told”. All the while, the Chair sits smirking, relishing the twitter coverage the show will be receiving by the many outraged tweets from those quaint Cybernats up there in Bonnie Scotland.
Audience participation soon showed that Scotland was very much a topic that they wanted to discuss and who better to answer the questions than Joanna; the only Scottish representative on the panel and even a member of the Exiting the European Union Committee at Westminster. This of course is not what those producing the show wants the public to see as they wish to continue the pretence that nowhere else in the UK is interested in what happens in Scotland. Time after time, Joanna was refused the opportunity to respond to direct questions and untrue statements introduced by the audience, being told that the show was not all about her as if she had led the questioning. We had to listen instead to the views of those, which although very interesting, were only opinion and had limited basis in fact. Thankfully, Joanna reminded the audience of a fact that sometimes escapes them as they sit on their lofty perches – the UK is not synonymous with England and the show is actually broadcast elsewhere and those in Scotland can see only too clearly how they are thought of as the audience snigger at yet another “jocular” question. It is disheartening to hear audiences and panel members refer not to the Scottish people or even the Scots but simply as Scotland, depersonalised, inconsequential and above all else, disrespectful.