Last Sunday I took part in the BBC show The Big Questions. The discussion was on the new poster campaign ‘Inspired by Mohammad’ and asked the question of whether Islam needed better PR. I was pretty much on my own in arguing that no, I could see no reason why any religion should have such a campaign, and besides there was something almost surreal about the claims being made by this one. It was interesting that there was not a single voice raised in my support, but hey, all’s fair in love and war, I suppose.
But not for the first time I found myself musing on the make-up of studio audiences. There are shows which I no longer bother to watch or listen too, not just because I am tired of the platitudinous ramblings of the panellists, but simply because the sympathies of the audiences seem so at odds with the opinions of the majority on a whole slew of major issues, giving discussions a frustrating, alternate-universe air.
Take immigration: a number one concern as measured by poll after poll. The strength of feeling on this issue is never reflected in public audiences, whether they be for Question Time, Any Questions or indeed The Big Questions. Instead, the most that happens is that public feeling is referred to, often by the host, as being strong. The audiences themselves always seem much more ambivalent.
I’m not sure how audiences are selected by the broadcasters. And I’m certainly not claiming that there’s any kind of conspiracy. Rather I imagine that a fair system is used which, oddly, goes on to produce an unfair, unrealistic result. To maintain ‘impartiality’, production teams might strive for 50% pro, 50% con on any given issue. The impression one is left with is that there is much more argument and disagreement than there actually is.
So for example, if the BBC were setting up a discussion on the future of the monarchy, it would no doubt have two pro-monarchy speakers, two republicans. And the audience would be selected presumably on the same principles. The impression given is of a country spilt down the middle, when in fact, around 75% at the last count were in favour of its continuation. So shouldn’t we perhaps have a form of PR in audience selection?
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