The first BBCQT of 2015 came from Watford, featuring Vince Cable MP (Lib Dem), Liz Kendall MP (Labour), David Davis MP (Conservative), founder of Wikipedia Jimmy Wales and broadcaster/columnist Julia Hartley-Brewer on the panel.
Question 1: Is there any way to stop the type of attack that happened in France?
[Referring to the attack by Islamic fundamentalists on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo which killed twelve people on 7th January]
David Davis said “the short answer is no”. Terrorists aim to provoke a particular reaction from the government and public to make us give up our freedoms; we should resist the urge to do this or to believe we can stop every attack. Dimbleby followed up by asking whether magazines should alter their content; Davis again said no, and in fact he would have wanted the reaction to be every editor of every newspaper choosing to publish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons that day.
Julia Hartley-Brewer agreed with Davis and described the UK newspapers as “bottling it” by not reprinting the cartoons. She said we need to prevent the attacks from affecting us, but we’re scared of being targeted; and that the right to freedom of religious belief is “hand in hand” with freedom of speech, not opposite to it.
Vince Cable referenced Voltaire, saying the thing we should be least tolerant of is intolerance. He also pointed out that recent acts of terrorism have not just come from jihadists, but neo-Nazis and others, urging against a backlash that seeks to single out one religion or culture as being responsible.
Liz Kendall said Muslims in her constituency condemn this atrocity and that we should give credit to the French police for risking their lives in trying to catch those responsible. Freedom to examine, criticize and satirize religion is part of freedom of speech and expression, so although it’s difficult when we find it personally uncomfortable, we have to accept it.
David Dimbleby then read out BBC guidelines, quoting “The Prophet Mohammed must not be represented in any shape or form.” Hartley-Brewer called this rule “a disgrace”. (The BBC has since said these are outdated guidelines from 2010, and its policy has been revised, but I can’t find the new wording anywhere.) David Davis said the BBC website should have been able to carry the cartoons. Jimmy Wales said Wikipedia would carry the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, and it’s important for people to see them in order to understand the issue and the reaction to it.
Question 2: Is David Cameron just using the Green Party to avoid the televised debates?
[Cameron is currently refusing to take part in the pre-election leaders’ debates unless Green leader Natalie Bennet is included, on the basis that UKIP leader Nigel Farage has been invited and both parties have 1 MP]
Jimmy Wales sardonically remarked that it just proves Cameron is a massive supporter of the Greens.
Julia Hartley-Brewer said Ofcom made the decision that UKIP should be included and not the Greens, and it should be the decision of broadcasters not politicians when it comes to who is invited.
David Davis felt it was an easy bluff to call; if they include the Greens, then Cameron will have to take part in the debates.
Liz Kendall said Cameron was trying to avoid the debate.
Vince Cable made a half-hearted attempt to defend Cameron, but then agreed with an audience member that Cameron wants the Greens included not through fairness but to hurt Labour given that UKIP will be there to hurt the Conservative vote.
Question 3: After serving his sentence for rape, should Ched Evans be allowed to continue with his career?
[Dimbleby contextualizes this: Evans was due to be signed by Oldham Athletic football club, but they changed their minds after public outcry showed this would be a deeply unpopular move]
Liz Kendall said she was horrified that Oldham were planning to sign a convicted rapist, as it would be a job in which he was highly paid and a role model for young men. She is glad they have changed their minds.
Julia Hartley-Brewer said she “couldn’t disagree more”. Ched Evans served two-and-a-half years and that was his punishment, not a lifetime of unemployment. Being a footballer is the only job he’s trained to do and he has an entitlement to ply his trade. He is being pushed to make a public apology, but he does not believe he committed a crime. He should be allowed to return to work and get on with his life. She added that from what she’s read, she wouldn’t have convicted Evans had she been on the jury; when the audience reacted badly to this, she stressed she wasn’t dismissing the jury’s findings.
David Davis disagreed with the demand for an apology, because the case is still subject to judicial review. He said when he first thought about it, he took Julia’s view that once you have served the criminal punishment you should be able to go back to your job, but on reflection there are some exceptions, and it’s difficult for someone convicted of a sexual crime to take up a job in the public arena or where they are considered a role model.
Jimmy Wales said he’d have trouble supporting a team that hired a convicted rapist.
Vince Cable said the Football Association should decide on which offenses disqualify players from returning to high-profile jobs and then apply the principle consistently.
Question 4: Who’s to blame for A&E waiting times: the government, the NHS or the general public?
Vince Cable said it’s better to look at the cause than to parcel out blame. The aging population and increase in demand coupled with the failure of GP contracts system and inefficient use of resources have caused the increase in A&E waiting times.
Jimmy Wales said you can’t blame the general public for getting sick or the NHS because it isn’t responsible for its own structure; blame rests not just with the government but all politicians who should set aside party differences and improve the NHS together.
Liz Kendall said social care and district services need to stop being cut, and very real challenges have been caused by the top-down reorganization and increased reliance on agencies to supply nurses.
David Davis agreed with Vince Cable that you don’t solve the problem through applying blame, and with Liz Kendall that there are problems of co-ordination with social care. But there is an integration programme starting in April and May, the NHS is actually coping very well with the increase in demand and we shouldn’t “play a game” with it in the run-up to the election.
Julia Hartley-Brewer said all three are to blame: the public are getting older, but also eating and drinking too much and going to A&E too easily; the GP surgeries aren’t available at evenings or weekends so A&E is the only option for quick care; NHS managers have been tweaking figures to meet their targets; and politicians aren’t joining the dots between the NHS and local authority services.
David Davis spoke incredibly well, with the same spark in his eye that he had in 2005 when challenging for leadership of the Conservative party. His response to the first question was a resolute defence of the freedom of speech and the best answer I’ve seen since Alex Salmond was on in the run-up to the Scottish referendum.
Vince Cable is normally a good speaker, but on this occasion he looked tired, stumbled over the second question and didn’t fully engage until the final question. Being at the fag-end of a coalition government with the full expectation of a Lib Dem collapse in the May elections can’t be much fun, and it showed.
Liz Kendall was strong on the final question but otherwise needs to work on her delivery. She kept speaking slowly and loudly, stressing the important words, as if talking to a group of five-year-olds.
Julia Hartley-Brewer put her points across lucidly and confidently. The remark that she wouldn’t have convicted Evans was a definite mis-step, but otherwise even where I disagreed with the content of what she said I admired the manner in which she said it.
Jimmy Wales looked a bit lost in places, but took a good stab at answering each question, even if his idea of cross-party collaboration on NHS policy caused Dimbleby to scoff.
I’d have liked more discussion of the purpose of the criminal justice system in relation to the Ched Evans question. There were two clear schools of thought: either certain crimes reveal something inherently untrustworthy in a person’s character that mean they are unsuitable for certain jobs upon their release; or the punishment for the crime should only be that applied by the courts and outside of this, once the sentence has been served,the person must be fully able to return to normal life, including the profession of their choice. What this really boils down to is whether the system aims to punish, to protect the public, to rehabilitate the criminal, or to achieve some combination of the three. But the discussion didn’t open out that way, which was a shame.
Finally, a personal reflection on the Charlie Hebdo attacks. The response from Paris and beyond has been amazing and I admire the bravery of all who continue to draw, satirize and publish in the face of real threats. This was not about religion; it was about inciting hatred, causing fear and recruiting others to do likewise. If not for Mohammed, they’d have found someone else’s name to act “on behalf of” and chosen another target. They are psychopaths and as such cannot and should not be engaged with, appeased or given undue significance. I hope France continues to react in the sensible yet heartfelt way it has been doing so far. The spirit of resilience and the will to retain freedom of speech are stronger than ever, and long may that continue.