Comment: BBC Question Time Returns to York

Kaitlyn Beattie-Zarb (She/Her)

(Image: Kaitlyn Beattie-Zarb)

Last night the University of York hosted BBC Question Time’s electoral debate, welcoming the leaders of four political parties to answer questions from a live studio audience. Visiting campus was Ed Davey from the Liberal Democrats, John Swinney from the Scottish National Party, Keir Starmer from the Labour Party and current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak from the Conservative Party. The debate was held within the Ron Cooke Hub on Campus East – which is currently out of action for students during renovation – and largely shutting down the campus as police barricades were erected and many buildings closed to accommodate for the large journalistic and political presence. 

I was very lucky to receive exclusive media accreditation for the BBC’s Spin Room (after weeks of emails mind you), which took place in the Computer Science building. Spin Rooms are common in political journalism, and largely act as locations for journalists to gather to watch and write about the events. There were large screens throughout the room running a live feed from the Ron Cooke Hub (operated by the Uni of York’s own computing teams), and a number of long tables for press teams to congregate. We even had a nice array of sandwiches, snacks, and drinks – which the BBC press teams suggested the student journalists take at the end in an effort to be sustainable and reduce waste! This room presented the wonderful opportunity for journalists to meet, chat and record content, with podcasts, radio shows and live TV broadcasts all taking place throughout the room, as political journalists discussed the night’s top political queries. 

During the debate itself the media room fell deathly silent, with the room hanging off every word broadcasted by the live feed. We laughed when someone asked Ed Davey the reason behind his paddle boarding and slide riding campaign events. We gasped when the audience shouted shame at Rishi Sunak for planning to leave the European Court of Human Rights. We winced when one audience member tried to advocate for less immigration on particularly ‘racist’ grounds. And when the debate came to a close we jumped to our feet, laden with question ideas ready to chuck at the incoming storm of politicians.

Following the debate these political spin doctors breezed into the room – MPs representing the political parties with the singular job of explaining how their leader acted, and putting a good ‘spin’ on the debate. Earlier in the night I was warned that journalists would flock to the spin doctors in “a bit of a scrum”; however, in the end the gatherings were relatively pleasant. Yes, journalists had to yell questions to get their chance to chat with politicians, but largely the groups were very aware of each other and almost had an unspoken list of whose turn it was next.

Following the initial scrums, journalists split off to talk more with specific politicians, or raced away to catch their transport to the next location of the campaign. Our student media bubble was quite content soaking up our time in the media room, snatching photos, chatting with the remaining journalists, politicians, and political aides, and yes stealing crisps.

The University of York was clearly very proud to welcome this national debate to the campus, posting a number of photos online and calling the event a chance to bring “politics and democracy right here to campus.” Whilst it was particularly wonderful to see national politicians wandering, however briefly, around our campus, the most intriguing part of the debate (at least from a local perspective) was the relative lack of access to students. 

The University had a number of expert academics (lecturers you may recognise from your own classes) gathered in the spin room, available for media interviews throughout the night. The University teams were also very excited that our gang of five student journalists managed to get into the room too, filming social media content with us and taking many photos of us chatting with journalists and interviewing politicians. 

Ultimately though, the five of us received no help getting media accreditation, spending many weeks tracking down emails, and advocating for our individual presences in the room. As far as we can tell the number of York students selected for the live studio audience of the debate itself was less than 5 (or at least five who managed to ask questions), and students as a whole were hugely discouraged from attending the area, with students barred from buildings on Campus East from about 3 pm on Thursday. 

Whilst the few students in the audience asked some incredibly insightful questions regarding tuition fees, rent, jobs and trust, no politician had any particularly good answers for students, with Keir Starmer simply highlighting that tough choices would occur between abolitioning tuition loans and fixing the NHS. Although we were just left wondering how binary alone would ever save the National Health Service.

A protest by the York Palestinian Society gathered outside the police barricade throughout the event, however, police continually tried to move them along, and some students reported that security didn’t “seem tolerant of students even being there”. Many students have commented that they were totally unaware of the event happening on their campus (due to the location of the debate being embargoed until Thursday morning), with others claiming the University made “it seem like such a good thing for the uni, when uni students actually aren’t really involved at all.” 

Ultimately, while solutions such as setting aside a certain number of student spaces or making media accreditations more accessible to students could be beneficial, we must remember that the University additionally may not have had much decision-making power in the running of such a high-profile debate, beyond providing event space. 

Still, a national election debate on our campus is an exciting moment for the University community as a whole, both for those lucky enough to be in the room, and those watching along at home. Students, both past and present, have spoken of how exciting it was to see buildings they know and paths they’ve walked flash up on national TV, and it is that national recognition that may prove incredibly beneficial for the University of York in years to come.

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