TWO first ministers, a constitutional battle over gender reform, Tory factions at war over asylum policy, high-profile SNP figures arrested, a new monarch on the throne and the Covid-19 inquiry leaving reputations in tatters.

These were just some of the events in a jam-packed political 2023. But how well did the BBC’s flagship politics show Question Time cover the year’s events?

We looked back with Professor Phil Burton-Cartledge – who analysed more than three decades of the programme – on some of the biggest talking points from the show.

India Willoughby’s ‘hanging’

The year started with arguably the most heated episode ever to hit our screens. India Willoughby, the UK’s first transgender news presenter, appeared on the panel alongside Spiked journalist Ella Whelan, and they frequently clashed on gender reform amid a heated debate on trans prisoners and where they should be housed.

The discussion – in response to the question “Should safeguarding women’s only spaces be reviewed” and against a backdrop of the Isla Bryson case – gave rise to a “poisonous” atmosphere, with Willoughby saying after the programme she felt as if she was at her own “hanging” as she attempted to take on an audience largely against her.

Burton-Cartledge said the episode presented problems with how the panel was selected. He said it was an example of how experts could ensure discussions on delicate topics are better informed.

“There is a well of transphobia among the general population and the producers know this,” said Burton-Cartledge, a sociology lecturer at the University of Derby.

The National: India Willoughby said the audience on Question Time could have come from the '1970s'

“So they know by booking someone who is trans and someone who is anti-trans and setting up a question they knew was going to get an inflammatory response, that suggests a complete lack of care on the part of the producers.

“If there is a trans issue that comes up [in the future] perhaps they need to think very carefully about the questions and who they have on the panel.

“If they want a nuanced conversation about trans people in prisons, then having a trans panellist is fine but why don’t they have a criminologist on, or someone who has worked in prisons?

“There’s a variety of ways they could have gone about it but they didn’t and that suggests to me they were not interested in having a nuanced conversation.”

Burton-Cartledge also criticised the closed manner of the question posed, which he feels is a common issue on the programme.

He said: “It’s never a case of ‘what should we do about X?’, it’s always a yes or no question because it’s about getting that attention and getting the numbers watching television.”

The Brexit special

At the start of the summer, the BBC organised a Brexit special episode with the audience filled entirely by those who voted Leave in the 2016 referendum.

The move prompted fury from Remainers despite the broadcaster saying the panel would include “a range of views”. It did, though there was no sign of any Tory minister or anyone from Scotland.

Burton-Cartledge argued there wasn’t necessarily a problem with this episode, instead suggesting there should be more specials honing in on specific trends or news stories.

He said: “It’s sometimes interesting to drill a bit deeper into some of these issues. I think it would also be interesting if there was an episode with people who voted against Scottish independence in 2014 and what they now think.

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“I guess a lot of people mistake what Question Time is supposed to be about. Is it always about giving a balanced viewpoint or can it go a little off-beam and start thinking about other issues that might be of interest to a general audience but involve a specialist audience?

“Are people really interested in what Remain voters have to say about Brexit now? Most people do agree Brexit is a mistake, so would it just be an hour of ‘told you so’?

“I think perhaps there is a case for occasional special episodes.”

The Fiona Bruce problem

Much of the backlash towards Question Time in 2023 was sparked by its presenter, who in March attracted hundreds of complaints when she appeared to minimise accusations of domestic abuse levelled against Stanley Johnson.

The incident led to her stepping back from her role as an ambassador for a domestic abuse charity.

Bruce stepped in when a panellist described Johnson as a “wife beater” to explain the context of Johnson’s wife having told a journalist he broke her nose, before saying: “Friends of his have said it did happen, it was a one-off.”

Burton-Cartledge said it was a sign of the BBC’s “rigid” approach to balance. She said: “I think she’s always trying to protect the BBC and herself from any kind of legal claims, so she may have overreacted in a clumsy way. It was a lose-lose situation for her.

The National: Fiona Bruce Image: Richard Lewisohn/BBC

“When it comes to balance it [the BBC] has a sort of rigid way of going about it. If you have a climate change scientist, [the BBC thinks] you have to have a climate change denier and, of course, the science is overwhelmingly proof of climate change, so that’s not balanced at all. It’s a habit of mind we can see the BBC has.”

Bruce was also criticised for excessively interrupting guests, with one of the main victims being Scotland’s Net Zero Secretary Mairi McAllan, who was interrupted more than anyone else on the panel during a May episode.

Burton-Cartledge said: “I don’t think [Bruce] is always conscious of the fact she’s interrupting people who are pro-independence. As someone who comes from quite a posh background, she’s automatically going to give people from a similar background to her more leeway. When she encounters people with different views of the world, she’s going to ask questions more.

“The more you interrupt someone, the more you’re likely to get them to lose their cool, so maybe there’s an element of that.”

SNP go ‘off the rails’

Arguably Bruce’s standout moment of the year was when she introduced a Question Time from Fort William by suggesting the SNP had gone “off the rails” after the arrests of some high-profile figures as part of an investigation into party finances.

She came under fire for “unacceptable framing” and “editorialising” after she said: “Tonight Question Time is in Scotland for the first time since the SNP came off the rails in such spectacular fashion.”

Many speculated she would not have described the Tories in the same way despite their repeated rule-breaking during Covid.

Burton-Cartledge criticised Bruce and the show for reinforcing the “Westminster centrism of British politics” with statements such as this. He said: “One of the things you would expect from a political programme that aims towards balance is balanced treatment of the guests and at times it does fall short.

“We saw a similar treatment of Jeremy Corbyn.

“She [Bruce] was reflecting the consensus around Westminster and around the media people that work in London.

“It [the show] just re-inforces the Westminster-centrism of British politics. Despite the fact Question Time travels around the UK, it doesn’t really reflect the local character of what is going on there [the place it is being filmed] at all.”

The National approached the BBC for comment but no response was received.