Question Time is a BBC topical debate television programme in the United Kingdom, based on Any Questions? The show typically features politicians from at least the three major political parties as well as other public figures who answer pre-selected questions put to them by an audience selected on the basis of its political views and demographic. The independent production company Mentorn has made the programme for the BBC since 1998. Question Time is presented by David Dimbleby.
Until 2010, BBC One Northern Ireland replaced Question Time with the more local debate show Let's Talk at least once a month hosted by Mark Carruthers, but this show has been axed and brought under the Spotlight brand. It is now shown once a month on Tuesday night with Noel Thompson. Nowadays BBC One NI have their own political show called The View: this is broadcast live from 10.35pm to 11.05pm, presented by Mark Carruthers, and is followed by Question Time. Occasionally, if Question Time is made in Northern Ireland, it would be broadcast at the same time as the rest of the UK; as in September 2011 when it was broadcast from Derry, and in May 2013 when the programme was from Belfast.
Although the show is intended for UK viewers, it is occasionally seen on BBC World News as news events warrant. Additionally, the episode which originally aired just a week before the 2015 UK general election was seen on the US channel C-SPAN.
Question Time title sequence
|Presented by||Robin Day (1979–1989)
Peter Sissons (1989–1993)
David Dimbleby (1994–)
|Country of origin||United Kingdom|
|No. of episodes||1,351
(as of 23 November 2017)
(list of episodes)
|Running time||60 minutes|
|Production company(s)||Brian Lapping Productions (previously)
|Original network||BBC One|
|Picture format||576i (16:9 SDTV)
|Original release||25 September 1979 – present|
|Related shows||Any Questions?
The Big Questions
Question Time Extra
Young Voters Question Time
Schools Question Time
BBC Free Speech
Question Time began on Tuesday 25 September 1979, as a television version of the BBC Radio 4 programme Any Questions?. Originally intended to have only a short run, the programme became very popular and was duly extended. The guests on the very first show were Irish novelist Edna O'Brien, Derek Worlock; the Archbishop of Liverpool and politicians Teddy Taylor and Michael Foot.
From 21 February 1980 the series moved to its current Thursday-night slot and became fully networked within BBC, with Scotland and Northern Ireland broadcasting the series from this point onwards.
Question Time began with a panel of four guests, usually one member from each of the three major parties (Conservatives, Labour and SNP) and another public figure, for example non-governmental organisation directors, newspaper columnists, or religious leaders. In 1998, the panel was enlarged to five, with another non-partisan member or leading member of a fourth political party joining the panel.
The chairman sits in the middle and chairs the debate, deciding who can speak on the panel and bringing audience members into the discussion. Questions are submitted by the audience before the programme goes on air. The programme makers select some to put to the panel, who never know the questions before recording begins. During the programme, the presenter calls on the relevant members of the audience to put their question to the panel and gives each member an opportunity to answer the question and respond to each other's points. Every audience member is asked to bring a question and those chosen are informed immediately prior to filming.
Question Time audiences are not a random sample of the public, but are screened and selected in advance, on the basis of their replies to a questionnaire on an application form. Mandatory fields on the application form include the applicant’s desired questions, voting intention, political party membership, occupation, ethnicity, and disability status.
Usually, filming takes place on the evening of broadcast, to ensure issues are as up-to-date as possible.
For a brief period in the mid-1990s, the programme used voting keypads to take a poll of the audience, who were stated to have been selected to provide a balanced sample compared with the nation as a whole.
During general election campaigns, the programme has taken a different format, with the party leaders appearing as single guests and fielding questions from the audience.
In 2007 the BBC commissioned a new programme called The Big Questions, which has a similar format to Question Time but focuses on ethical and religious issues. It is broadcast on BBC One on Sunday mornings between 10am and 11am. Both programmes are produced by Mentorn Media.
Veteran newsman Sir Robin Day was the programme's first chairman, presenting it for nearly 10 years until June 1989. The programme soon gained popularity under Day's chairmanship, with his quick wit and interrogation skills. His famous catchphrase when he had introduced the panel was: "There they are, and here we go." There were several guest hosts during Day's tenure, the most frequent being Donald MacCormick who hosted at least 9 times. Bernard Levin presented the show twice in place of Day, making him the only person to present and appear as a panelist in the programme's history. The programme was mainly filmed at the Greenwood Theatre in London on the south side of London Bridge. His last programme as presenter on 12 July 1989 was broadcast from Paris, and Robin Day was allowed to choose his own guests.
After Day retired, Peter Sissons took over and continued until 1993. After Day's departure the BBC decided to widen the programme's appeal by moving it around the country. The programme also changed its London location from the Greenwood Theatre to the Barbican performing arts Centre. Sissons' tenure as Question Time chairman included three different editors, as well as a number of problems during filming, this included a bomb scare during a live recording, which resulted in the programme having to be taken off the air and on one occasion a member of the audience collapsed and died whilst recording.
However the programme continued to enjoy good ratings during this period, with one notable edition broadcast on the day of Margaret Thatcher’s resignation on 22 November 1990, which featured two different panels over two editions.
David Dimbleby was chosen to succeed Peter Sissons as the programme’s presenter in 1994, after the BBC decided to hold two pilot show auditions between Dimbleby and Jeremy Paxman with two different audiences and two different panels. For a brief period under Dimbleby’s chairmanship in the mid-1990s, there were a number of variations to the format, including the audience using voting keypads to take a poll of the audience at the end of the programme, and Dimbleby getting out of his seat at intervals to question the audience. Question Time is still hosted to this day by Dimbleby, who is now the programme's longest-serving presenter.
Other than Sue Lawley (1985/87) and John Humphrys (2009), other 'stand-in' chairs of the panel over the series' run have included Bob McKenzie (1980/81), Ludovic Kennedy (1982/83) and Donald MacCormick (1985), who was the most frequent replacement.
Nick Robinson hosted the June 5th Edition which was one of the leaders specials of Question Time after the show was moved for News Coverage following the June 2017 London attack and David Dimbleby was unavailable already preparing for Election Night Coverage.
Ed Havard was made acting editor in May 2005 after Nick Pisani left. During his time in charge the BBC offered a seat on the panel to Nick Griffin in 2009. He left when the programme's production base moved to Glasgow.
Gill Penlington, the ITV News political producer, was made interim editor in May 2008, when the BBC gave Ed Havard a year-long sabbatical.
Viewers of the show can submit comments to the show via SMS and until October 2012 a selection of those comments were posted on Ceefax. Comments were edited and put to air by a team of four journalists based at Television Centre in London. The system displayed one message at a time, and usually showed several tens of messages throughout each hour-long episode. The system's popularity sprang from its mix of serious and light-hearted comments.
On average, around 3,500 texts are received during each hour-long programme, although 12,000 texts were once recorded in one frantic programme in 2004. Quantity of texts is generally related to the composition of the panel.
On 24 September 2009, the show launched its Twitter presence and the show's presenter has regularly announced its presence on Twitter since late 2009. Using the Twitter ID "@bbcquestiontime" it tweeted using the #bbcqt hashtag. By early 2010, this had become one of the UK's most active "Twitter backchannels" to a TV show. @bbcquestiontime claimed 10,000 tweets had been sent around the show on 7 October 2010. The show had over 40,000 followers on Twitter by October 2010 and this exceeded 50,000 on the evening of 3 February 2011.
On 9 June 2011, Question Time became one of the most-tweeted about shows of the week in the UK, with 5,000 tweets during the programme, with tweeting continuing through to the next day. In addition to the more sober analysis of the discussion, Question Time also has a parallel Twitter backchannel based on the spoof account Dimblebot - purportedly a robot version of Dimbleby - where the entire premise of the programme is claimed to be a demonstration of Dimbleby's ability to defeat the panel. It became clear during the riot special that David Dimbleby knows of the existence of Dimblebot and the associated Dimbledance. The @bbcquestiontime account now has 408,000 followers.
When chaired by Sir Robin Day, Question Time was almost always made in London, at the Greenwood Theatre on the south side of London Bridge. After his departure the BBC decided to try to widen the programme's appeal by moving it around the country. Currently the programme is presented from a different location each week, usually in the UK, with a local studio audience each time. The make-up of the panel is usually altered to reflect part of the country where it is filmed. When in Scotland, for example, the programme may invite a Scottish National Party MP or MSP onto the panel.
Some editions of the programme have been broadcast outside of the UK, such as in Sydney, Australia in October 1999, before the republic referendum, and in the United States for a General Election special for the 1992, 2004 and 2008 US Elections. Special editions have also been broadcast to coincide with the G8 conference meetings, a 7 July 2005 edition was broadcast from Johannesburg in South Africa, coinciding with the G8 summit in Gleneagles. It just so happened that this edition was broadcast on the same day as the suicide bombings on the London Underground and the London bus in Tavistock Square. An edition was also broadcast the following year from Moscow, Russia, in time for the G8 conference in Saint Petersburg.
On 10 March 2005, another overseas edition of the programme was shown from Shanghai, China, and a programme from Paris, France, was broadcast on 26 May 2005, three days before the French referendum on the EU Constitution.
The show is recorded at different venues throughout the UK. Although, as part of plans to relocate BBC production around the UK, the main office of the programme will move to BBC Scotland in Glasgow, the itinerant nature of the programme will continue.
In early 1981, David Steel declared his support in principle for "a marriage" between the Liberal Party and any party which might be formed by the Gang of Four; David Owen, who was also on the programme, said he could see advantages in an "electoral alliance" between them. This prefigured the period 1983–1987 when Owen and Steel were Leaders of the SDP/Liberal Alliance and tension grew over whether their deal was a prelude to a merger of the parties or merely a temporary electoral pact.
During the 1983 election campaign, Conservative Foreign Secretary Francis Pym was asked by an A-level student named Andy Davis about the implications of the Conservatives winning the election with a landslide victory. He began by casting doubt on the likelihood of this happening and then observed "I think landslides on the whole don't produce successful governments". Margaret Thatcher later wrote that the remark "struck a wrong note": "people drew the inference that he did not want us to win a large majority". After the election (won by the Conservatives on a landslide) she sacked him as Foreign Secretary, partly because of his gaffe.
In a 1984 edition, Alan Clark, a junior government Minister at the time, was openly critical of a government decision to buy a foreign-made missile system, prompting guest host Sue Lawley to ask the audience, "Is there anyone here who wishes to defend the government on this, because its Minister doesn't?"
A 1994 edition was notable for a confrontation between Jeffrey Archer and the historian David Starkey over the age of homosexual consent. After arguing that 18 should be the age of consent, Archer was attacked by Starkey who told him: "Englishmen like you enjoy sitting on the fence so much because you enjoy the sensation."
The programme broadcast on 13 September 2001, which was devoted to the political implications of the 11 September 2001 attacks, featured many contributions from members of the audience who were anti-American, expressing the view that "the United States had it coming". The BBC received more than 2,000 complaints and later apologised to viewers for causing offence, stating that the edition should not have been broadcast live, but rather should have been recorded and edited.
In 2002, the editor of Private Eye, Ian Hislop, made an open attack on Jeffrey Archer, who had been imprisoned for perjury, when his wife Mary Archer was a fellow panellist. She was noticeably angry that the issue had been raised and criticised Hislop after the recording had finished.
In March 2007, an Iraq Special was broadcast, featuring Tony Benn, Benazir Bhutto, Des Browne, Liam Fox, Charles Kennedy and, via video link from Washington D.C., John R. Bolton. The episode is particularly memorable for the clashes between Benn and Bolton.
On 11 October 2007, former editor of The Sun newspaper Kelvin MacKenzie appeared on the programme in Cheltenham and launched an attack on Scotland. During a debate about tax, MacKenzie claimed that "Scotland believes not in entrepreneurialism like London and the south east... Scots enjoy spending it (money) but they don't enjoy creating it, which is the opposite to down south." The comments came as part of an attack on Prime Minister Gordon Brown who MacKenzie said could not be trusted to manage the British economy because he was "a Scot" and a "socialist", and insisting that this was relevant to the debate. Fellow panellist Chuka Umunna from the think tank Compass called his comments "absolutely disgraceful", and booing and jeering were heard from the Cheltenham studio audience. The BBC received 350 complaints and MacKenzie's comments drew widespread criticism in both Scotland and England. On 3 July 2008, it was reported that the BBC Trust's editorial complaints unit had cleared the programme of any wrongdoing. Question Time then proceeded to broadcast the following question from Nick Hartley as part of the programme on the same evening: "After the media coverage of [Andy] Murray's rise and fall, are we now to infer that the English resent the Scots more than the Scots resent the English?" MacKenzie reappeared on the programme in Cardiff on 17 May 2012.
After he was elected to the European Parliament, Nick Griffin the leader of the British National Party was invited onto Question Time for the first time, to appear on 22 October 2009. The decision led to controversy and political debate. Hundreds of people protested outside BBC Television Centre as the edition was filmed; six people were arrested after 25 protesters forced their way into the main reception. The edition attracted eight million viewers, and also drew a large number of complaints as a result of its content. Griffin himself said that he would make a formal complaint to the BBC for the way he believed he was treated by the show's other guests and the audience, who he described as a "lynch mob."
An edition aired on 19 May 2011 was recorded at Wormwood Scrubs Prison in London. The episode was the first to feature prisoners as part of the audience, while panellists included Justice Secretary Ken Clarke who attempted to defend controversial remarks he had made earlier in the week about rape sentencing.
A special edition of the programme was aired on 11 August 2011 following the outbreak of rioting which had occurred during the previous weekend and earlier that week. Question Time had been off air for its annual summer break at the time and the edition was a scheduled at short notice due to the English riots.
An appearance by George Galloway on the edition of 5 February 2015 recorded in Finchley gained much negative comment before the broadcast. Inviting Galloway, a politician who has been outspoken about Israel, onto the programme was thought to be provocative and insensitive because Finchley has a large Jewish minority. Galloway, who was heckled during a discussion about antisemitism, thought he had been defamed by a question posed to him, which insinuated that he should share some of the blame for a rise in antisemitic incidents during 2014.
On 23 November 2017, the programme was shortened because an audience member became ill and could not be safely moved. 
Audience figures for Question Time are usually around 2.7 million.
On 14 May 2009, Question Time discussed the MPs' expenses row, with audience members heckling guest panellists Menzies Campbell and Margaret Beckett, the Labour MP, who was booed by the audience for insisting that her expenses were her privilege. The TV audience reached 3.8 million.
3.4 million people watched in 2003 for the declaration of the war on Iraq.
The highest audience figures to date, however, were recorded when Nick Griffin of the BNP appeared in an episode on 22 October 2009; the audience reaching 8.3 million viewers.
Several schools editions have been broadcast: On 20 June 2005, with a panel of Tony Benn, Justine Greening, Lembit Opik, June Sarpong and Otis Ferry. On 6 July 2006, with a twenty-year-old student joining David Miliband, Richard Madelely, Lord Coe and Julia Goldsworthy. On 5 July 2007, an 18-year-old student joined a panel of Ed Miliband, Sayeeda Warsi, Davina McCall and Douglas Murray. On 9 July 2009, one of the panellists was an eighteen-year-old student. Other panellists were Andy Burnham, Jeremy Hunt, Sarah Teather and Shami Chakrabarti.