Why should academics go on Question Time?

Academics made 49 appearances on the weekly BBC debate show over a nine-year period – researchers explore what they and their universities gained

June 26, 2024
Question Time programme with Fiona Bruce and the audience
Source: BBC Question Time on BBC One and BBC iPlayer

If regular panellists are to be believed, appearing on the BBC’s flagship political debate programme can give academics a platform in front of millions of television viewers, can boost their university’s status and can potentially educate the public.

A Cardiff University analysis of the 1,734 guest slots on Question Time over a nine-year period found that the BBC relied heavily on a small number of right-wing pundits – but also included 49 appearances by academics.

“The Question Time panel is supposed to be reflective of civil society and political life. It brings together both sides of those debates, and academics have an important role to play in that,” Matt Walsh, head of Cardiff’s School of Journalism, Media and Culture, told Times Higher Education.

“Sometimes they’re experts in political affairs. But often they’re experts who are economists, or experts who are public health figures. They have a specific expertise that is important to tackle the issues of the day.”

The analysis of 352 programmes between September 2014 and July 2023 showed that there was a big increase in the number of experts used during and immediately after the Covid-19 pandemic – with 10 appearances by academics in 2019-20 and 15 in 2020-21.

Dr Walsh said it was important that experts were available to help inform the public during national debates, especially around issues connected to science and their research.

“Academics were able to answer questions in a way that was understandable to a lay audience and were able to translate their research and expertise in a way which was communicable,” he said.

Devi Sridhar, a professor of global public health at the University of Edinburgh who appeared on the show three times during the pandemic, said the main benefit was in bringing an independent public health perspective to a global issue.

“I felt it was important for experts without a clear political bias to explain what was happening with Covid-19, what the options were for governments in terms of the policy choices and the knowns and unknowns,” she said.

“I wasn’t trying to advocate for one political party or another or have an agenda beyond informing people of the public health dimensions of the crisis.”

Peter Openshaw, a respiratory physician and professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London, said his clinical background had served as good training for his three appearances, which had helped him fulfil his role as an educator.

“We’re not just there to educate our own students at universities, but also to have a wider role in educating the public and to play a part in promoting public education of science as it unfolds,” he added.

Panellists often have to share the stage with politicians, journalists or, as in Professor Openshaw’s case, comedians such as Ruby Wax. He said it could be difficult to know how much to “stay in lane” as an academic on the panel, which could often face unexpected questions.

“I remember being asked by [current host] Fiona Bruce about small boats [carrying people across the English Channel]…but talking about the internationalism and the openness of science and the vital importance of enriching science by academic exchange actually got the biggest round of applause,” he said.

“Allowing yourself to go out of lane but also trying to speak to something you know about can be a very important part of doing this type of work.”

Professor Openshaw said Question Time had helped to raise Imperial’s status and had been one reason why the institution has performed so highly in some recent global university rankings.

The most frequent academic panellist across the 352 programmes analysed was Anand Menon, a King’s College London professor and director of the UK in a Changing Europe thinktank, who appeared five times.

Speaking in front of millions of viewers can also boost an academic’s own public profile, according to Sarah Churchwell, professor of American literature and public understanding of the humanities at the School of Advanced Study, University of London.

“Public engagement with humanities ideas was already embedded in my work, so QT was an obvious thing for me to do,” she said.

“But media reach is one measure of the impact of one’s academic profile, and QT is a good way to demonstrate that.”

Professor Churchwell, who appeared three times on the show during the research period, said academics were at a disadvantage compared with most politicians, who have staff to help them prepare.

“It is very difficult to juggle big media commitments like this with other work – you have to be ready to drop everything on the day and prep for it, and then travel anywhere in the country to be in front of a live audience. If you have a lecture or seminar to deliver that day, it’s tricky.”


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