Friday, 4 March 2011

Question Time (BBC1, 03/03/2011)

"B-Movies, made at night, with actors nobody had ever heard of..." 

Late on in this latest edition of the 32 year-old programme, David Dimbleby mutters this curious aside about the obscure byways of British cinema; a reverie which tickles the animated Starkey to a frankly inordinate degree.

It proves one of the finer moments of a show which is dull, dull and dull again, for the most part. Of course, I am not somebody implacably opposed to the celebrification of 'political debate' - i.e. the profoundly unedifying Alastair Campbell vs. George Galloway 'face-off' a few weeks ago - but I want a more interesting range of perspectives and ideas than was presented last night.

The likes of Margaret Beckett and the erstwhile "Quiet Man" of British Politics, IDS, are programmed to bore, impeccably schooled in the art of turning people off politics. International diplomacy and the House of Lords were represented by the watery, circumspect figure of Malloch Brown. The panel was completed by Telegraph journalist Liam Halligan and the eccentric TV historian, David Starkey.

Topics included, inevitably, the subject of Libya and the absurd sabre-rattling of David Cameron, acting less like a prime minister than a vacuous PR man trying to bolster his jingoistic credentials with his core voters and play the Blairite world policeman card. Note the irony of the below image, mentioned during the programme:

There was discussion of the foster-parenting legal case that the Christian couple had launched against their local council; though nobody managed to articulate the reason for the court's judgement: that subjective religious belief on homosexuality should not be upheld by the law: 

'The Judea-Christian tradition, stretching over many centuries, has no doubt exerted a profound influence upon the judgment of law-makers as to the objective merits of this or that social policy, and the liturgy and practice of the established church are to some extent prescribed by law. But the conferment of any legal protection or preference upon a particular substantive moral position on the ground only that it is espoused by the adherents of a particular faith, however long its tradition, however rich its culture, is deeply unprincipled; it imposes compulsory law not to advance the general good on objective grounds, but to give effect to the force of subjective opinion. This must be so, since, in the eye of everyone save the believer, religious faith is necessarily subjective, being incommunicable by any kind of proof or evidence. It may, of course, be true, but the ascertainment of such a truth lies beyond the means by which laws are made in a reasonable society. Therefore it lies only in the heart of the believer who is alone bound by it; no one else is or can be so bound, unless by his own free choice he accepts its claims.'

This couple could have done more fostering had they not, rather idiotically, decided to launch this frankly absurd case in defence of their right to express an opinion, in the context of their fostering, that our modern and necessarily secular law could never endorse.

The discussion of Murdoch's acquisition of 100% of Sky was not consequential enough, with little analysis, though some panellists showed a little perspective on that man and his empire.

Nothing particularly interesting was said on the subject of the UK Film Council, other than the palpably ludicrous claim by Halligan that the British film industry is 'genuinely great at cinema'. He's talking about The King's Speech, The Queen and, erm, some other films about royals. Presumably not the truly interesting low-budget stuff like Fish Tank. David Dimbleby makes the relevant historical example of the Eady Levy, which required a certain percentage of films exhibited to be British-made; none of the panelists pick up on this - they clearly haven't the historical awareness or interest. Halligan's delusions of British grandeur are amusingly pricked by Starkey, who tartly mentions the amount of terrible films produced during the Boom with the sort of big money LH advocates - "my friends were all at it!"

Disappointingly, the panel lacked the views of the political or broader left; not even the most delusional, neo-Blimpish Telegraph reader could take Malloch Brown and Beckett to be voices of the left.

As a piece of television was this entertaining, informative or educational? Only very slightly on all three counts, though the format clearly has potential to work - provided there is a better range and quality of guests than we saw here. Important issues were covered, but were not really the subject of much interesting debate; on most of them, there was only a scintilla of difference between the panelists.

The panel

Lord Malloch Brown (b.1953)

Senior UN role from 1999-06, Minister of State for Africa, Asia and the United Nations 2007-09 in Gordon Brown's "government of all the talents". Knighted in 2007. Seemed to be trying to give as little away as possible about his own inherent partiality, as is the way with mandarins. He has studied History and Political Science, yet tries to come across as ahistorical and 'above the fray'. Something like the Lord Shawcross, another internationally focused Lord, whose Face to Face I watched this week - another Labour politician very loosely connected to the Party, wanting to appear 'independent', who indeed earned the nickname 'Lord Floorcross'. Whilst MB did speak out against some of the Bush-era excesses of the US in 2006, he came across as the ultimate establishment man here. He backed up IDS in saying Sky News is a 'very good' channel.

Margaret Beckett (b.1943)

Derby MP, President of the NO2AV campaign and an embodiment of Labour's limitations. She has been associated with some worthy causes in the past but has not delivered - look at her response to the 2006 Lebanon war whilst Foreign Secretary, her lack of action on nuclear disarmament. Beckett is patronising in approach and ultimately tainted by the Blair-Brown years - and thus is always drawn into defending the past record. She supports the Old Politics of FPTP and thinks that AV is a bad thing because people won't understand it. Cringe.

Iain Duncan Smith (aka. 'IDS') (b.1954)

What to say about this inexplicably praised 'man of conviction'. He went to Glasgow and drew some obvious conclusions without offering realistic proposals to actual provide Social Justice. He is a Thatcherite Conservative pretending to be humane; the furrowed brow beneath the bald bonce simulating 'concern'. How disingenuous was he, regarding the foster-parent issue? Trying to keep the 'common sense' brigade on board whilst also feigning adherence to the liberal letter of the law. His confused position came across, and clearly will have pleased nobody, though I suppose it does old IDS some credit that he did not endorse the Torygraph's view. On Libya, however he aped the Blair/Gove doctrine of 'liberal interventionism', endorsing, in principle at least, a British intervention in Libya.

Liam Halligan

Open-neck shirted, bland purveyor of received opinions and tired tropes. He fluffed the open-goal offered by Western interests in middle-eastern oil, by giving a rather incoherent argument. Perhaps inevitably, he could not provide any systemic analysis, being very much part of the post-Thatcher consensus, being an Economics graduate in this era, a Telegraph columnist and indeed working for an assessment management firm.

David Starkey (b.1945)

A historian and political contrarian, known for providing curt turns on this programme. I had not expected to like him at all - 'How much pompous baloney from Starkey will there be?' was scrawled in my notebook as I saw he was on. However, Starkey came across as a welcome unpredictable presence in the context of his rather staid fellow panellists. He railed against the 'disease' of Blairite 'interventionism' and of adherents like Giddens and Gove - making similar basic criticisms as Richard Seymour, while obviously not sharing Seymour's own ideology. One assumes he has moved to the Old Right politically after his disillusionment with the left in the Callaghan era; something of a High Tory who notably criticised the Blair-Gove form of neo-liberalism when the subject of Murdoch came up. Gay and atheist, as he proclaimed in this programme, yet fetishist of political power-play and very possibly an imperialist. He is obviously not going to agree with Daily Mail homophobia but will argue for their right to exist, as he did with the foster-parents' case. He made one of the best points of the show to the effect that he wouldn't have turned out the way he was had he not had homophobic parents - part of an argument against state intervention in the family sphere and for conflicts being allowed to arise. He said all of this in his rather self-parodically abrasive tone of voice. It must be said that pre-emptive legislation - however well-intentioned - can have unforeseen repercussions, in some cases, although preventive measures could obviously save a lot of pain and strife. He was actually rather good in answering the Libya question in attacking the government's lack of historical perspective and lack of joined-up thinking:

'This is demented government; it's government that should be put in a care home.'

A hectoring, pompous ass he may well be. Jonathan Meades or Bertrand Russell he clearly is not. But at least he made challenging points and displayed signs of an independent intellect. Starkey was clearer the 'winner' of this television debate, whatever his many objectionable views. Clearly an unsatisfactory outcome, with this curious man looking rather smug at the end, basking in the sort of audience applause that suggests he might be in for 'national treasure' status, heaven help us.

The audience (Derby)

Nothing too significant or odd to report other than a tendency towards opposition to many of the cuts and that typically British reticence to actively support their governments.

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