A freak Twitter storm engulfed Question Time’s audience producer last week. Alison Fuller Pedley, who picks the BBC panel show’s audience, received a hail of attacks and condemnations. By Tuesday, she had removed her Facebook profile and deleted both Twitter accounts.
Critics had good grounds for anger. In September, Pedley had invited the Boston, Lincolnshire EDL to apply for places in the audience, prompting anti-racist campaigners and local MP Matt Warman to complain. The backbencher understands the show repeatedly approached the EDL but contacted neither the Conservatives nor any other local group. In a letter to its 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 party Britain First, tweeted supporting Vote Leave and joined facebook group the “British Patriot Front”. On Thursday, Bella Caledonia discovered a UKIP councillor had claimed he’d 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 media bungled the story. The BBC administered a slap on the wrist, its press team issuing blanket denials and focusing on Pedley’s “unwitting” Britain First posts. Sure enough, the media followed suit: the Mirror, Huffington Post and Daily Mail never mentioned Pedley’s British Patriot Front membership.
Yet further damning evidence was not hard to find. The British Patriot Front teems with “likers” of the BNP and EDL. I saw a poll on whether to hang or deport Gina Miller, or burn the “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”. The group’s creator often posts to a “BNP EDL NF [National Front]” group. Its other admin is an active member of “UK Nationalists For Our White Race And Culture”.
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 to regain “control of our borders”. The same month, she encouraged Brexiteers “Better Off Out” and UKIP South Leicestershire to join a Channel 4 audience. In 2008, Pedley invited two Republican groups to apply for a US Question Time audience. It seems these right-wing groups are the only ones she publicly contacted.
Question Time’s audience producer plays a pivotal role, wielding 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 audience selection process is a closed box: the BBC claim to recruit representative, balanced audiences, but refuses to reveal how.
Meanwhile, Question Time audiences seem angrier and more Europhobic. “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”.
There’s 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 a despairing statue of liberty. Pedley might back British nationalism while disdaining vulgar American populism, of course. But we can place a question mark over cries of “fascist”.
It’s not even clear that Pedley backed leave, because a week before the referendum, she tweeted supporting Remain. She likewise enjoyed Question Time appearances from social democrat Will Hutton and cosmopolitan liberal Simon Schama (or “Sharma”); if she “likes” Melanie Phillips, she also “likes” left-leaning economist Noreena Hertz. None of this quite fits the far-right charge sheet.
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 don’t notice or recognise its source. Did she join the “British Patriot Front” for similar reasons? I found no evidence Pedley was an active member of this or similar groups, 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?)
Overall, I think Pedley is a right-wing Tory. She’s a landlord who thinks landlords deserve more power, and joined her local Conservatives. Her tweets suggest she favours democratic pluralism, probably regards herself as open-minded, and enjoys a knockabout debate. By June, I believe she supported Remain (possibly convinced by David Cameron on Question Time). But her hard-right “centre of gravity” makes her more open to “respectable” far-right voices like Farage, Phillips or Murray than left-wing “crazies” like Corbyn. “Crypto-fascism” seduces her because it dons right-nationalist clothes.
Does this explanation reassure? Not especially. As Jack Monroe writes: “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 backed Remain, why did she tweet “Vote Leave”? Here’s what probably happened. On 16 May, Pedley was working on Channel 4 News’ “EU referendum special”, due to air the following day. The audience had to divide evenly over Brexit, so Pedley scrabbled around looking for Leave-supporters. She contacted UKIP South Leicestershire and Better Off Out. She tried to reach Vote Leave via their website, but instead clumsily posted an invitation message and “vote Leave” link on facebook. That’s when I believe she posted her generic “Vote Leave” tweet, via the campaign’s website. It was the first tweet from @fullhouse21 in over a month; another month would pass before the next one. I suspect, in other words, that 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? Either way, she offered far-right figures a platform well beyond their standing.
Maybe that’s what broadcasters want. Fireworks, after all, make “good TV”. But good TV does not equal good democracy. Question Time offers the public a rare mass media platform; we must be sure no-one has placed a thumb on the scales. The public should be able to see the selection methods, demographic and polling data consulted, applications, invitations, approvals and rejections. Media companies can’t 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.