After 25 years, David Dimbleby’s tenure on BBC One’s Question Time is coming to an end.
The presenter is stepping down from the flagship political debate show, with Fiona Bruce poised to replace him.
“It has been exhilarating following the twists and turns of British politics,” he has said.
Twists and turns is putting it mildly. His time on the show has covered the Iraq War, the 2008 financial crisis and the EU referendum.
It has also seen the fall of John Major, the rise of Tony Blair and the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition.
From the growth of social media to the spread of populism, the Dimbleby era has seen the character of political debate change as well – something often reflected in the shifting nature of Question Time itself.
“I think David was one of the first of a generation who did start challenging the politicians and the people who were on [the programme],” veteran Tory Kenneth Clarke said on a recent 5 Live podcast.
“He made a great thing about audience reaction and giving them more space.”
Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, also shared her experiences of the host, saying a panellist could never be sure about how Dimbleby would react during a debate.
“You arrive and he comes up and he is all twinkly and you’re thinking ‘Yeah, yeah, which David have we got tonight?’ – because you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
No stranger to controversy
Uncertainty has long been an appeal of debate, and Dimbleby has spent more than two decades finding order in the show’s weekly mix of politicians and celebrities.
That mix has not been without its controversies. In 2009 the BBC made the choice to invite then-BNP leader Nick Griffin to be a panellist.
It was the first time the far-right party had been represented on the programme, and the choice led to a national debate on the BBC’s interests and obligations.
It also led to wider questions about how extremist politicians should be treated by the media, foreshadowing more recent arguments around populism, extremism and ‘no platforming‘.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Front Row programme at the time, Dimbleby said he had wanted to “expose” the BNP leader to an audience.
“The idea of exposing the BNP or, to put it more objectively or disinterestedly, allowing the BNP to face an audience and face questions from them seemed to me to be the right thing to do – as long as they were a substantial political party or a party big enough to be included.”
Exposure was certainly what Mr Griffin faced. The episode was watched by more than eight million people, the highest audience since Question Time began broadcasting in 1979.
Fuelling social media
Political controversy might have had its part in fuelling such large viewing figures. But another possible factor is something that has only continued to grow since 2009: social media.
Dimbleby’s tenure on Question Time has seen the likes of Twitter and Facebook enter the cultural landscape. In an age of hashtags and instantaneous commentary, the programme has thrived.
Statements and questions can be quoted, parodied and turned into memes long before a panellist has stopped speaking. The term “gammon” first emerged as a pejorative by online viewers of Question Time in 2016.
(The term refers, as the journalist Adam Bienkov put it, to “an angry old man with pink cheeks” and was not directed at Dimbleby himself.)
Dimbleby has been lampooned by the Dimblebot Twitter account, which posts ‘all-caps’ commentary on the debates and pretty much everything else related to the presenter.
At the same time, social media also means panellists have become susceptible to attacks that extend far beyond the rows of a studio audience.
During one episode, Dimbleby told an audience that online comments levelled against Institute of Economic Affairs associate director Kate Andrews ahead of the debate were “vile, disgusting, loathsome remarks by people hiding under the cloak of anonymity.”
A Roman theatre
While Question Time’s audience may have extended online, the most memorable moments from Dimbleby’s time on the show have involved members of the public in the studio.
“The thing about the audience is that, over time, they’ve realised that they are just as big a part of the show as anyone else,” said Ms Thornberry. “It’s like a Roman theatre sometimes.”
As presenter, Dimbleby often found himself stealing the limelight. In the midst of the MPs’ expenses scandal in 2009, Eric Pickles, the former chairman of the Conservative Party, agreed to appear on Question Time.
Things did not go well for him. When asked about how many houses he owned, Mr Pickles admitted to having two – prompting pantomime boos from the audience.
He then attempted to defend himself, arguing he needed a property close to the House of Commons to make sure he was there on time for meetings.
“Like a job in other words,” quipped Dimbleby.
A degree of theatrics might be embraced, but the line is towed at outright heckling.
When a particularly rowdy audience member would not stop interrupting businesswoman and activist Gina Miller in 2017, the presenter firmly told him “he ought to leave”. The man did.
It was the Question Time equivalent of a pub brawl.
At turns sharp and sympathetic, Dimbleby’s approach has been at the heart of Question Time for a generation. “He made this programme the David Dimbleby show,” said Mr Clarke.
The programme will soon be headed up by Fiona Bruce, who said she was “thrilled and not a little daunted” to be taking over from “one of her television heroes”.
How will the flagship politics programme change under its new leader? The ongoing drama around Brexit means Ms Bruce will hit the ground running, but the show has deeper concerns to contend with.
The whole concept of public debate is different now to 25 years ago. The meme-generating, Roman theatre format might have proven successful in the past, but how will it fare over the next quarter of a century? And what shape will it take in an age of viral panics and anti-expert sentiments?
Perhaps it just needs to keep people watching.
“At a time when ratings for many scheduled TV programmes are under strain, just maintaining the show’s current audience and editorial integrity, while reflecting a changing country and occasionally creating real news, may well count as success,” commented BBC media editor Amol Rajan.
As for Dimbleby himself, he has said he is “not giving up broadcasting” and that he intends to return to his “first love: reporting”.
We have not seen the last of the man with the scorpion tattoo.