Question Time: Being Your Self In Front of Ugly Celebrities

Question Time, that stablemate of political Thursday nights on British television can be said to have several purposes. No doubt in its original radio format (which still exists as Any Questions) it was devised as a ‘method’ of democracy; a way to get politicians from the broad strata in front an audience of ordinary people. And I use ordinary in a very loose term ( a study on the demographics of an audience might be interesting). The problem though is when that transition to television happened. It gave politicians more air time, more time to get their face in prime time slots to promote their party. Plus, in the transition to television, a fifth member of the panel was added from four, which now usually comes in the form of a devil’s advocate, somebody not aligned to any political party: Famous examples include Ian Hislop, Jarvis Cocker, John Lydon, and a recurring figure in recent times, making his most recent appearance on last nights show (26/09/2013),Will Self.

Will Self, a writer, named on Granta’s list of 20 ‘Best Young Novelists’, also has journalistic roots. Infamously, he was caught taking heroin on John Major’s jet whilst covering the 1997 election campaign, and now claims to clean. Most recently he was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2012 for his novel Umbrella, and is Professor of Contemporary Though at Brunel University, where last nights Question Time, in Uxbridge was broadcasted. Joining him, or who Self was joining was, Michael Gove (Con), Douglas Alexander (Lab) standard, and then Patrick O’Flynn (an abhorrent mix of Express columnist and UKIP member) and Louise Cooper (Journalist of CooperCity, her own enterprise, on financial news).

Will Self was in typical, contrarian mood, best encapsulated on Newsnight when he ripped into Tessa Jowell about the expense of the Olympics, likening Ed Milliband to something from ‘Aardman Creations’ after being asked whether he would vote for them, and lamenting politicians finding it ‘physically painful to listen to discussions dragging it down to this domestic, political battlefield’ on the subject of the recent terrorist attacks in Kenya. Michael Gove was on particular form who was actually crediting opposition policies and being positive about Ed Milliband, which Will Self played right into his hands because Gove was trying to play the good politician all night.

Will Self was being overtly cynical about politicians. In the end it became Self himself against Gove like a unionist leader of good politicians; Michael Gove was standing up for all politicians. Gove in an audience winning outburst to Self said “Will, well you’re well known for playing to the gallery, populist position taking and for trying to denigrate politicians. I’m standing up for a politician from a different party, against the sort of cynicism that you pedal in the hope that will make you popular with this audience who will buy your books…” to which the audience, after siding with the advocate in the form of Self were now persuaded to side with Gove. Self’s applauses now were reduced to something like an avant-garde of breakaway clappers, the minimalist opposition. And this is what Self was warning the audience about. The politicians essentially owned the debate and rhetoric. Gove was extremely clever and won the argument becoming this owner of the rhetoric which reflects western society today.

Now, this Is the problem with ‘democracy in action’ masqueraded on shows like Question Time, because it gives the politicians more time to perform. Self was representing a portion of society that has had enough with the carefully controlled discourse and speech that politicians use. Question Time Is a format in front of an audience that politicians struggle to receive, 2.7 million viewers is a lot in a society that reluctantly admits to engaging with politicians, and in doing so, they are performing. Granted, Self is performing in a way to distance himself from the politicians. His trademark sesquipedalinism apparent with ironic humour, but it is not done in such manner like Gove says it is. The inadvertent affect would be that people search on Google, find out he is a writer, read some of his columns, and buy some of his books like Gove says, but it is not in a manner that the politician does to promote himself and his party. Self is openly a writer, but the politicians like Gove or conceited, and devious to conceal their true purpose, using their rhetoric to hide the true meaning of their policies and ultimate self-promotion, and promotion of their party’s leader. Gove’s job is on the line by appearing on these shows where Self’s isn’t. A great example is how the Tories use the economic debate as showing that the deficit has gone down and there does seem to a recovery for our economy, but living standards are going down. The rich are rich and the poor are poorer. We are not better off as a result of the economy and we are indeed worse off.

It all came to a head in the aforementioned terrorism debate. Self was essentially saying that he, and we should have, had enough of politicians using the terrorism debate as a way to promote their party and colonialist desires to invade other countries. Patrick O’Flynn audaciously said ‘The birds are coming home to roost” about warnings of Londonistan”. UKIP viciously anti-immigration, and adding the suffix of ‘-istan’ to London, implies that countries that end in ‘istan’ are the source of terrorism. If London was flooded with people from Pakistan then it would be a source of terrorism is what he seems to be saying. The politicians reinforced their arguments by referring all terrorist activity to Islam and talked of the policy that centred on targeting and implicitly surveying Islamic communities to find sources of terrorism, which Self rightly said is wrong, we already live in a heavily surveyed and monitored society. When Self said this, Gove then imbued his argument with extreme, fear inducement in the form of 9/11; how can Self talk about terrorism in such a way that he seems to dismiss 9/11/? Its the oldest rhetorical trick in the book; a strong emotional point to add guilt to the opposing speaker and completely undercut his argument. When Gove told Self that they had all had enough of him, the audience rapturously clapped to which Self remarked in a Wild-West accent “well lets take this outside then”.

Louise Cooper conforming to typical journalistic devices said that she ‘wouldn’t want her child dying’ as a result of not believing the governments measures to stop terrorism. It is nausea inducing and its another old, used trick. Self – ‘lets not speak from the high moral ground of your anticipated future loss’ in an effort to debunk Cooper’s inflated, unneeded claims. Her speech was comical, full of dramatic pauses, coming across like a red top journalist as opposed to an intelligent financial commentator.

To encapsulate the hypocrisy on show, a member from the audience, of Kenyan nationality said that ‘these people [terrorists] are evil, they don’t represent any faith on this earth’, and i must clarify that he was on about the terrorists. This inspired in a weird reversal of roles the politicians clapping to his response. The audacity and ludicrousness of it all; Where the politicians and the journalists had claiming that Islam was a source of terrorism were now clapping a man saying that terrorism has nothing to do with Islam and is pure evil.

It all comes down to this horrid debate of race which is shaping up to be the key debate at the next election. UKIP are anti-immigration, claiming that a crime wave will hit us at the expense of a Romanian/Bulgarian invasion when they join the EU.The Conservatives are sending vans around London telling people of ethnic origins to ‘go home’. The Labour party however is using the slogan ‘One Nation’ which they took from the Tories favourite Tory Benjamin Disraeli, which rather than a clever piece of political rebranding, just reflects the parties occupying the centreground . One Nation, now, implies one homogenous mass of peoples prescribing to the same values and beliefs, the belief in being British. A lovely piece of implicit nationalism.

It shows the extent to which our politicians ‘own’ rhetoric, jostling for the centreground, despite many commentators claiming that Ed Milliband was trying to take the party back down the left. But what is more homogenising than being ‘one’? Question Time does nothing but to give them more time to spew their image and policies and buff up their image. Audience participation is reduced to pre-selected, usual banal, open ended questions that allow the politicians to talk at the length and try and diminish the other parties on the panel. T.V is celebrity world; it is heavily edited and regulated, as the producers select the questions before the show, and there is some time raising hands, and the audience gets to add its input by either clapping or not clapping. That is all they are reduced to. The origins of the quote ‘Politics is show business for ugly people’ is disputed, but Self borrowed last night, and it encases the argument.

So the likes of Self are reduced to jesters, people who fool around and play jokes, wind up the politicians, which often, can put the politician in a bad light. But in the case of last nights show, it can put the politician in a good light. I’m not saying that all politicians are bad, what i’m saying is that in shows like Question Time which hides behind a façade of democracy is anything but that. It is a T.V show hinged on entertainment and allows the politicians to influence the rhetoric and discourse on how we view them and ourselves and other people like the immigration and race debate, because the audience are not clapping when something Is right, they’re clapping when something sounds good, when somebody seems to be taking a moral high ground, like in the case of Gove vs Self.

In the end we all come away feeling nothing like ourselves, warped into this world of propaganda, protecting a dangerous, concealed truth. Completely Self-less.