David Dimbleby has chaired Question Time since 1994. From the age of 7 until he graduated from Oxford in the early 1960s, he spent his young life in an all-male world of privilege: he went to the Glengorse School in Sussex and to Charterhouse School in Surrey: he went to Christ Church, Oxford, where he was President of the Christ Church JCR, editor of the student magazine, Isis – and a member of the Bullingdon Club, the exclusive society for getting very drunk and riotous for the very wealthy or very aristocratic. From Dimbleby’s background – his great-grandfather Frederick William Dimbleby was one of the Late Victorian press barons – he seems to have got in by the “very wealthy” clause. Whatever he smashed in his student rampages, one may suppose his family paid for it. He acts like a member of the Bullingdon Club. It’s a good thing he’s sober.
On Thursday 12th January 2012, the first Question Time of the year was in London, and kicked off with a question about high-speed rail and then moved into Scottish independence – as with Nicola Sturgeon, Deputy First Minister, on the panel, the BBC had evidently guessed it would.
In response to a question from a woman in the audience: “Who would be worse off if the marriage breaks up, England or Scotland?” David Dimbleby gave Kelvin MacKenzie the first response – and let him run except when MacKenzie claimed something so wrong (he said Scottish Labour MPs gave Labour UK governments their majority: Dimbleby politely corrected him). Dimbleby let Kelvin MacKenzie run til he was done: including two brief conversations between Dimbleby and Mackenzie, he allowed the former editor of the The Sun two minutes and 49 seconds to speak and to finish what he was saying.
Nicola Sturgeon got second turn; Douglas Alexander third. David Dimbleby interrupted Nicola Sturgeon once, and not to correct her on a point of fact, but to challenge her rhetoric – she referenced Kelvin’s set of clangers about the Scots, and he asked her if she saw the Scots that way. Someone else* challenged her “At our expense, Nicola, at the English expense” when she came on the better services provided in Scotland than in England, and she corrected him to point out that Scotland pays its way – whereupon Dimbleby interrupted her again and passed the question on to Douglas Alexander, wanting to know if it was true that Scotland paid its way. In that first round, Nicola Sturgeon got two minutes 23 seconds to speak, and the end of her speech was interrupted.
*Could someone with a better talent for voice-recognition than I have let me know who that was?
Douglas Alexander at one point said it was important to “reject a policy of grudge and grievance and narrow nationalism on whichever side of the border we find it.” He gestured with his hand at that moment towards Kelvin MacKenzie and Nicola Sturgeon, appearing at least from this angle to mean them both. (For the rest, he seemed to have a pro-Unionist speech prepared for him.) He got to speak for one minute 17 seconds, completely uninterrupted.
A man from the audience was then invited to ask a question, and he queried the delay on the referendum, scheduled for autumn 2014. He claimed this was because opinion polls at the moment showed that independence wouldn’t win. Nicola Sturgeon jumped in to respond to him before Dimbleby could assign the question to someone else, with a joke about the World Cup. (She got a laugh from the audience and was interrupted again by the panel – one man saying “We’re probably safe then” and a round of yuck-yuck laughter from the other men.) She went on to explain that the “second half of 2014” was an election committment, and got interrupted again (6:28 on the video above) this was the first interruption begun by Douglas Alexander with David Dimbleby taking part, both of them talking over her and trying to stop her responding to the question. The interruption lasts for 11 seconds, and Nicola Sturgeon simply talks through it, finally pulling neatly into common political ground with Douglas Alexander with a lick at the LibDems for not keeping their electoral promises.
Dimbleby interrupts her again at 6:50, though briefly and just to say “come to the SNP point” and Nicola Sturgeon explains briefly (with a nice bite at Douglas Alexander about the guddle of the ballots, though I suspect that’s not something anyone in the English audience made much of) that in Scotland first they have to consult, then to legislate, all of which have built-in time delays to avoid rushing legislation through Parliament without proper consideration, and then there’s six months to wait between the legislation being passed and the referendum itself – which would take Scotland to summer 2014. The Commonwealth Games are happening in Glasgow then, so the very earliest a referendum could take place would be autumn 2014. (This is where another MSP on the panel would have been useful, or at least for Dimbleby to have done some spadework himself on Scottish Parliamentary rules and electoral procedure.) She spoke for one minute 19 seconds total, with three interruptions.
At 7:26 Dimbleby cuts her off and points to someone else in the audience. Nicola Sturgeon asks if there isn’t going to be a debate, and Douglas Alexander jumps in for pretty nearly all of the next 32 seconds – David Dimbleby chimes in at one point – with a lot of anti-SNP rhetoric, finally demanding how Nicola Sturgeon’s going to take the difficult decisions in government.
- Douglas Alexander has been an MP since 1997 and has had a ministerial career under Blair and Brown, but since May 2010, he’s been only Shadow Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. He has never led his party and he has never had a senior Ministerial position when in government.
- Nicola Sturgeon has been an MSP since 1999. She has been Deputy First Minister of Scotland since 2007, Depute Leader of the Scottish National Party since 2004 (and defacto leader of her party in the Scottish Parliament between 2004 and 2007), and she is Cabinet Secretary for Health, Wellbeing and Cities Strategy.
At that point, when Douglas Alexander comes out with that thoroughly sexist and ignorant line about Nicola Sturgeon’s abilities in government, Sturgeon responds – and David Dimbleby cuts her off, speaking over her and waving at the next man in the audience.
Dimbleby lets Douglas Alexander talk for 32 seconds, without attempting to cut him off. Nicola Sturgeon responds for 14 seconds – and during the entire time Dimbleby is trying to shut her up and cut her off.
It’s actually quite painful to re-watch – I found it thoroughly embarrassing the first time on Thursday night, the spectacle of David Dimbleby and Douglas Alexander trying to gang up and bully – and these two men are trying to behave as if she shouldn’t be talking back when they want to.
The next question is also about Scottish independence – a young man in the audience demanding a “national holiday for the English on independence day, so that we can celebrate not having to subsidise Scotland any more”. There’s a laugh from one of the men on the panel, and the camera goes to Sturgeon shaking her head. She’s about to answer, when Dimbleby awards the question to Justine Greening, the Conservative Secretary of State for Transport, who had spoken earlier during the high-speed rail discussion but who had nothing to say spontaneously during the Scottish discussion.
Justine Greening was interrupted a couple of times at the start by Dimbleby to try to get her to answer the man’s question about England subsidising Scotland: she said no, but our economies work stronger together than apart. After his initial interjections, Dimbleby let her have her say (moderate Tory rhetoric about the Tories helping the Scots towards having the referendum as soon as possible) for one minute 23 seconds uninterrupted.
Dimbleby then selects another man in the audience, who suggests that there is no one who is credibly making the case for the Union, and so the SNP will have their own way, delaying the referendum until Scottish resentment of a Tory government reaches the point of voting for independence.
Paddy Ashdown takes up the question of the first woman in the audience, and speaks pro-Union. “I am as opposed to little Englanders as I am to little Scotlanders”. He says no one’s handled the referendum well except Michael Moore, by which he means the issue of the Scotland Act that will need to be amended to allow the referendum by the Scottish Parliament to be legally binding. Paddy Ashdown does not refer to or pick up on Nicola Sturgeon’s point that Scottish Parliamentary rules about consultation and legislation (and the coincidence of the Commonwealth Games) mean that the earliest a referendum can take place is 2014. He treats the independence of Scotland as a High Noon scene in a Western between David Cameron and Alex Salmond, apparently unaware of the woman to his right whose political career is as bound up in the referendum as Salmond’s is, and who a few minutes ago was making points as stateswomanly as Michael Moore’s. He is interrupted once by David Dimbleby for 15 seconds of back-and-forth interjections about whether he is really answering the question, but in all he speaks for two minutes 31 seconds, longer than anyone except Kelvin MacKenzie.
The whole video is 12 minutes 50 seconds. Four questions from the audience, three from men, one from a woman, each question taking 10-20 seconds to ask. Five people on the panel, two Scots and three English: the Scots got to speak for a total of five minutes and 45 seconds with seven interruptions from David Dimbleby and the English got to speak for a total of six minutes and 43 seconds, with two interruptions from DD. (I’m counting as an interruption an actual and intentional break into what the speaker has to say.) Two women and three men: the women got to speak for a total of five minutes 19 seconds, with seven interruptions from DD or from Douglas Alexander: the men got to speak for a total of seven minutes 9 seconds, with three interruptions from DD.
- Kelvin MacKenzie: spoke once, two minutes and 49 seconds, one DD interruption, one DD interjection.
- Nicola Sturgeon: spoke three times, total of three minutes 56 seconds, five DD interruptions, two interruptions from others, and one interjection.
- Douglas Alexander: spoke twice, total of one minute and 49 seconds, one DD interruption.
- Justine Greening: spoke once, one minute 23 seconds, two DD interjections.
- Paddy Ashdown: spoke once, two minutes and 31 seconds, one DD interruption.
Here’s a point worth repeating. A big question that the Conservatives and Labour have been pushing is why not have the referendum earlier? As Nicola Sturgeon explained during Question Time on Thursday night, it’s because the combination of the time required for consultation and legislation in the Scottish Parliament, plus the coincidence of the Commonwealth Games, mean autumn 2014 is actually the earliest realistic date. Yet it was that exact point, which Douglas Alexander interrupted, David Dimbleby did not acknowledge, and Paddy Ashdown didn’t even seem to hear her saying it.
I’ve never gone through a Question Time panel in this much detail before, but I was always aware that whenever Nicola Sturgeon was a guest, David Dimbleby would routinely interrupt her, talk over her, and dismiss Scottish issues as something not relevant (famously, he did this once when Question Time was in Glasgow). David Dimbleby’s background seems to fit him better for Royal interviews than for dealing with live politicians who don’t – being women, being Scottish – fit his model of what a party leader and a deputy First Minister ought to look like. Perhaps it’s time and past time for a man who can’t deal with modern politicians to retire?