Question Time at Westminster Hall. Dominic Lipinski PA Archive/PA Images. All rights reserved.A freak Twitter storm engulfed the audience producer of Question Time last week. Alison Fuller Pedley, who picks the BBC panel show’s audience, received a hail of online attacks and condemnations. By Tuesday, she had removed her Facebook profile and deleted both Twitter accounts.
Critics had good grounds for rage. In September, Pedley had invited the Boston, Lincolnshire EDL to apply for the show’s audience – drawing complaints from anti-racist campaigners and local MP Matt Warman. The backbencher was told the show approached the EDL repeatedly, but contacted neither the Conservatives nor any other local group. In a letter to the director-general, he accused the BBC of misrepresenting Boston, “fanning the flames of division” nationwide, and “giving the impression that abhorrent views are widespread enough to be acceptable.”
On Monday, things kicked off again. People discovered Pedley had shared posts by far-right group Britain First, tweeted supporting Vote Leave and joined facebook group the “British Patriot Front”. On Thursday, Bella Caledonia discovered a UKIP councillor claimed to know Pedley, and said he persuaded her to bring Question Time to his town. The same day, campaigner Jack Monroe cancelled her licence fee in disgust, branding Pedley a “blatant neo-Nazi supporter.”
Mainstream coverage has been woeful. The BBC press team focused its denials on the Britain First posts, claiming Pedley shared them “unwittingly”. Sure enough, the media followed suit: the Mirror, Huffington Post and Daily Mail omitted all other new revelations.
further damning evidence is not hard to find. The British Patriot
Front, which hosts Islamophobic and racist material, is riddled with
“likers” of the BNP and EDL. The group’s creator posted extreme
Islamophobic images to a “BNP EDL NF [National Front]” group. Its
other admin is an active member of “UK Nationalists For Our White
Race And Culture”.
Scrolling back through November, I saw a poll on whether to hang or deport Gina Miller, or burn the three “traitorous” judges who upheld her appeal; a video claiming Muslims threatened to rape children; a clip alleging a “Clinton sex ring”. In October, one member posted a crucified figure with neo-Nazi slogan “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children”.
But it’s not just the facebook group. Far-right Islamophobe Douglas Murray is “always a great panellist” on Question Time, Pedley writes. She “likes” far-right journalists Melanie Phillips and “shock jock” Jon Gaunt. In May, she “liked” a clip of Nigel Farage obliquely excusing violence. The same month, she encouraged Brexiteers “Better Off Out” and UKIP South Leicestershire to join a Channel 4 audience. In 2008, she invited two Republican groups to apply for a US Question Time audience. It seems these right-wing groups are the only ones Pedley publicly contacted.
None of this takes place in a vacuum. Recent Question Time audiences seem angrier and more Europhobic, a fact that has not passed viewers by. “I haven’t been able to watch it due to the absolute absurdity of the audience”, writes one reddit user – “very extreme nowadays and not just your average opinionated types who just want to vent. There’s no nuance to it anymore, it’s all highly polarising rhetoric.” When Question Time aired from Boston (where Pedley invited the local EDL) people tweeted: “Since when was the agenda on #bbcqt set by the National Front?” “#bbcqt is the worst I’ve ever seen, can’t watch any more. Vile, racist and disgusting #switchingoff”.
This issue can’t be brushed under the carpet. The audience producer plays a pivotal role and wields real power. As journalist Teo Beleaga revealed in 2010, Pedley’s background checks are supposed to ensure audiences “embody the image of their city”.
Yet the selection process is a closed box. The BBC claims audiences are representative and balanced, but how does it make sure? In 2010, a member of the public tried to find out through the Freedom of Information Act. The Corporation refused the request.
This is an intolerable situation. The Question Time audience, one of few political fora that represent the public week after week, is selected by opaque and unaccountable means. If a producer has their thumb on the scales, we need to know. If a far-right sympathiser is in a position to apply that thumb, we definitely need to know. So the BBC, Pedley, Mentorn Media and Full House Audience Management must all take some flack.
That, then, is the case for the prosecution. Now here’s a (qualified) case for the defence. I found no concrete evidence of Pedley’s far-right politics, and some counter-evidence. She shared an article predicting “dark times” under Trump, and, shortly after his 8 November victory, a popular meme of the despairing statue of liberty. Granted, Pedley might back British nationalism while disdaining vulgar American populism. But we can place a question mark over cries of “fascist”.
It’s not even clear that Pedley backed leave. That might sound ludicrous, given that she tweeted her support – but a week before the referendum, she tweeted supporting Remain. She likewise enjoyed seeing not only Douglas Murray on Question Time, but social democrat Will Hutton and cosmopolitan liberal Simon Schama (or “Sharma”, as she dubbed him). If she “likes” Melanie Phillips, she also “likes” left-leaning economist Noreena Hertz.
What about those Britain First posts? Pedley only ever shared generic right-nationalist material – “support our troops” and “wear a poppy”. Britain First thrives on this stuff, because most sharers won’t notice or recognise its source. Is that also why she joined the “British Patriot Front”? I found no evidence Pedley was an active member of this or any similar group, though clearly she considers herself a “patriot”, duty-bound to support Britain’s armed forces. Did she know what she’d signed up to? (Could she not have known?)
Here’s my personal theory, which I believe best fits the evidence. Pedley is a right-wing Tory. We know she’s a landlord who believes landlords deserve more power, and joined her local Conservatives on facebook. She’s a “moderate” in that she favours democratic pluralism, probably sees herself as open-minded, and enjoys a knockabout debate – for reasons professional as well as personal. By June, I believe she was supporting Remain, possibly convinced by David Cameron on Question Time. But, because her political “centre of gravity” is hard right, she’s more open to “respectable” far-right voices like Farage, Phillips or Murray than left-wing “crazies” like Corbyn. “Crypto-fascist” material appeals to her because it dresses in right-nationalist clothes.
Does this explanation reassure? Not especially. As Jack Monroe wrote: “Her JOB is to conduct POLITICAL BACKGROUND CHECKS on up to 4k people a week.” “You cannot be responsible for researching 4,000 political character profiles a week, & claim to be ‘unaware of the context of Britain First’”.
If Pedley supported Remain, why did she tweet supporting Leave? Therein lies a tale. She posted the tweet on 16 May. It was the first tweet from @fullhouse21 in over a month; another month would pass before the next one. The same day, Pedley was working on Channel 4 News’s “EU referendum special”. The audience was supposed to divide evenly over Brexit, so she scrabbled around seeking Leave-supporters. She contacted UKIP South Leicestershire and Better Off Out. She tried to reach Vote Leave – but instead, clumsily posted an invitation message and “vote Leave” link on facebook. I think that’s when she tweeted “vote leave”, and I think it was an accident.
In contacting the EDL, UKIP, Better Off Out and GOP, what was Pedley doing? Stacking the deck with favoured right and far-right voices, or plugging gaps to “balance” the crowd? There’s no transparency here, so we don’t know. But either is a scandal. Asking activists to represent the public is like asking trainspotters to represent commuters: enthusiasts just aren’t normal. Particularly enthusiasts for race hate.
Maybe that’s what broadcasters want – after all, fireworks make “good TV”. But good TV does not equal good democracy. Question Time offers the public a rare mass media platform; how it selects audiences needs to become transparent and accountable. The BBC must record methods used, demographic and polling data consulted, applications, invitations, approvals and rejections, and publish them. Media companies shouldn’t get to decide in secret, by secret means, who’s in, who’s out and who’s invited. It’s our audience, not theirs. Let’s take back control.
Update: This piece was amended at 17:57 on 15 December 2016. An earlier version of this piece stated that a UKIP councillor claimed to be friends with Alison Fuller Pedley; in fact he only claimed to know her. The piece also stated Gina Miller is a QC. This has since been corrected.