(Unlike many articles which look at events from a distance, and venture opinions based on credible news sources and feeds of reliable information, this article deals with my experience as an audience member of the popular BBC current affairs programme, ‘Question Time in September of last year’).
On the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in America in 2001, the BBC produced a ‘Special Edition’ covering the 10th anniversary of the terrorist atrocities that left America in a state of shock. As a constant viewer and admirer of the format, as well as the quality of the participants that the programme attracts, I had completed the selection process some weeks before in the hope that I could attend one of the weekly recordings that take place across the country. This 9/11 edition of the show was not on the listings, and appeared to be a surprise addition to the domestic politics which so often dominates the content of the programmes; so rare is it to find QT dedicating itself to a particular overarching theme. So it was with surprise and excitement that I found myself being personally phoned up the day before the Thursday evening recording by one of the producers, and invited to attend as a member of the hundred-strong audience. Held in the Scots Guard’s London HQ, and with a panel of influential and impressive figures in politics and broadcasting, the stage was set for an emotive and impassioned debate on the merits of the war in Iraq, anti-terrorism measures, the ‘Special Relationship’ and the role of the armed forces in modern conflicts; all issues close to mine and many of the audience’s hearts.
For those unfamiliar or interested in the process, the various members of the public, all of whom have been chosen to represent the spread of party, cultural and political beliefs, are assembled in an ante room with good-quality refreshments, surrounded by various mementoes of the historic building which happens to be hosting the recording. Readers will be wondering the relevance that this part of the story holds towards the as-yet unexplored claim of a cover-up. This setting is where the great and wise David Dimbleby came for a brief introduction and welcome before the programme is recorded. In his few minutes, he laid down the house rules, cracked a couple of ice-breaking jokes, and (crucial to my argument) reassured us all that the programme was recorded from the beginning, and would run all the way through to fifty nine minutes. There would be no editing out, no stopping and re-doing certain bits and no pauses for panel or audience members to collect themselves. There would be just under one hour of recording, warts and all, and what we saw in that hour, the rest of the viewing public would see a couple of hours later when the programme was broadcast.
Fair enough. We clapped him, and proceeded into the hall for a warm up lasting half an hour or so. The panel members filed in, everyone composed themselves, and the cameras started rolling. In my occasional checking of the clock, the programme ran to pretty much one hour exactly. Dimbleby’s assertion that there was one run seemed valid; the camera work was done there and then, with the one orange light on each camera lighting up when it was being used. Throughout the program, there was only one angle being used at a time; presumably so that the panel members knew how to direct their words to the audience. The programme went well, with some audience members like myself able to ask the panel on policies concerning the armed forces, other people supporting the war in Iraq, and notably one audience member who got booed when he propagated the idea of a conspiracy by the American government to topple the twin towers as an excuse for declaring the ‘war on terror’.
Like all of the audience members, despite having been there myself, I sat down and watched the episode when it was broadcast that evening. It gave off the accurate impression of having been a fiery and emotion-filled sixty minutes, with myself and the other voluble audience members given suitable screen time with which to represent the general public. All, that is, apart from one contributor, who had been completely edited out, as though he hadn’t existed. It appeared that the BBC had not liked that this man, exercising his democratic right to free speech and protest, had explained on national television how America had masterminded the 9/11 attacks. The reaction of the audience had been to boo this man’s opinions, rightly or wrongly, and I recalled David Dimbleby reassuring us about the integrity of the program. The public, without knowing it, had been fleeced.
I took the opportunity after the recording to speak to the protestor, who was a well spoken, articulate man who had evidently undertaken extensive research into his beliefs, judging by his succinct statement, and possession of engineer’s drawings of the structure of the World Trade Centre towers. Despite the fact that I had no sympathies with his point of view, I had not booed along with the majority of the audience; he had a perfectly legitimate right to make his opinion heard to the panel of Question Time, and his expectations had been to be greeted with exactly the negative reaction that he had received.
And this is the crux of my anger against Dimbleby and the BBC producers. Had this man been unpleasant, swearing and generally ignorant, editing may have been slightly more acceptable. But because the content of his statement was potentially damaging to the notion of the UK and the US sharing the ‘special relationship’, there was a direct decision to act in the way that a state-sponsored news organisation does, and purge direct criticism of a still-sensitive issue. Not only is it disappointing that even a Dimbleby does not stand up for free speech, it is worrying that a programme I regard as being above suspicion regarding bias and taking sides lets the distinguished figurehead host in David Dimbleby provide the reassurance for a programme which, like all other news organisations, is in kow-tow to the politicians and bureaucrats of today.