At the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media, I study how open source intelligence can help understand society. New data from social media in particular can provide useful real-time insight into public attitudes toward events as they happen. But there is another source I’ve been overlooking all along: Question Time.

As everyone knows, this weekly programme asks a panel about the topical issues of the day; and applause is dispensed by means of approval. So can we gauge public opinion on current events based on the clap-proval each answer gets?

First, a quick statistics methods primer. Decent statistical polling works by taking a randomised, representative sample of the population. Question Time audiences are small - only around 150 people - but according to the BBC it is ‘a balanced cross-section of people’ from the city where the programme is filmed. From the application form this seems to be based on age, ethnic background and political preference. But there are also a number of confounding variables.

First, how far is clap volume an accurate and consistent gauge of attitudes? Panellists have a tendency to trail off, and Dimbleby frequently cuts-in. Audiences don’t just clap based on rational agreement; they respond to good delivery or acerbism, and some are better than others. There is also systemic bias: non-political commentators are always more popular than politicians, and thus likely to score a clap whatever they say. Any serving Minister is automatically penalised.

So to gauge public opinion I’ve factored in these various sampling and skewed data problems with some post-stratification weights, and converted each clap volume onto a ten-point Likert scale score, where 0 means ‘do not agree’ and 10 ‘strongly agree’. I assume a volume increase denotes more people clapping rather than the same number of people clapping more loudly, so a sound analogous to half the audience clapping would give a score 5. We cannot measure strength of disagreement, because we cannot measure volume of silence.

So with this in mind, what do we know about public attitudes this week?

Overall, Lancastrians are not too bothered about HS2, and are more concerned about lowering train fares overall (+6); or even better, nationalising them (+7).

Really what the North needs is more investment: (+6) and for southerners to stop saying the North is Manchester (+8).

Attitudes to Mali seem unclear, perhaps a mild displeasure toward UK involvement (+3), and a preference to trade over military intervention (+2).

Lancastrians are split about Charles becoming King, and about Nick Clegg possibly sending his children to private school: although politicians sending their children to private school while extolling the virtue of public education is not a vote-winner (+8).

And finally, the benefits of immigration – at least the economic benefits – are quite widely recognised and accepted (+6).


Matthew Cain

Nice piece. And the outcome almost justifies the methodology! My memory of BBCQT though is working in a Labour Party office and getting a call from a researcher offering x tickets for activists to come to the next filming. I assume they do that with all parties to fill the gaps in the audience with politicos.

Andrew Preston

I've never been to a Question Time. I have though been to the Radio 4 Any Questions, which is esentially the same thing .

It was in Marlborough (Wilts ?), and they held it in a local primary school. Nigel Lawson arrived in a big black Merc, the other 3 panellists in rather less grand vehicles.

As I entered the building, I was asked to fill out a short card/form with what I wanted to ask. , and then walked through to the assembly hall where it was all happening. It was the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Can''t remember all 4 of the guests, 1 was Nigel Lawson, another, the non-politician, was Gillian Slovo.

Lawson was dire..; self-satisfied, smugly certain that without question Iraq should be assaulted immediately.

From having been to this, and watched many TV Question Times I've largely concluded that both the radio and tv versions are a really tired format, dead parrots which are mostly a circling round of newspaper items by Conservative-minded politicians. The sound, and flurry of supposed argument, but where there is none really.

The clapometer? I'd say that there is an amount of enthusiastic clapping, and a much larger amount of polite clapping. There isn't much boos..., because when a guest says something apparently very 'bad', they are usually seized upon in a lovemaking embrace of oral disagreement by oe of the other guests.

It's a really rather dishonest programme, in my opinion.


More Audience participation is needed, why not include emails and texts from Live Viewers (uh-oh I hear a response coming.."as opposed to those Deceased!?")
I mean they manage the above on BBC Morning Program and others?
Although the Format would probably have to be changed, Sir Davis might need an assistant, perhaps, to help with the Virtual contributions.
Why not have a continuity Program, similar to "Any Answers" where there could be an ongoing reaction to questions raised, even Local Q-Time Groups who might meet as the Program was being broadcast? such a Network might reinvigorate our tired Electorate?

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