I HAVE some questions for you. What is your name? Where do you live and how old are you? Are you disabled, what’s your job, and what’s your ethnic group? How did you vote in the EU referendum and how did you vote in the last General Election? And, finally, have you ever been in the audience of Question Time? Answer all of these questions honestly (or dishonestly) and you might have a chance of appearing on the programme the next time it comes to a town near you. Because that’s how the system works. Or, at least, that’s how the system is supposed to work.

Except that we now know – thanks to a man dressed in red (or was it orange?) – that there are problems with how Question Time is working day to day. All those questions about who you are and how you vote that all prospective audience members have to answer are supposed to create balance and prevent people appearing on the programme too often. But when the show came to Motherwell, something went wrong. Fiona Bruce asked the man in orange (or was it red?) for his views on Brexit and he accused the SNP of hypocrisy. But viewers pointed out the man was called Billy Mitchell and that he’d appeared on Question Time before. Some also pointed out the colour of his top: orange, orange, orange, they said.

The BBC says it is now investigating the incident, which is just as well because its process has gone wrong somewhere, although not in the way the SNP thinks it has. For instance, the minister for Scottish constitutional relations Mike Russell said the affair proved Question Time was deliberately flouting BBC and Ofcom guidelines. The former MP John Nicolson was also one of those who suggested the colour of Mr Mitchell’s top was a signal of his allegiance to the Orange Order. But what does that say about the blue jacket Fiona Hyslop was wearing? Is the minister for culture a secret Tory?

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This sort of crappy, conspiratorial Da Vinci Code thinking about the BBC has become pretty familiar over the years, but I think there are some other, more serious lessons to be taken from the Motherwell affair, the first being that it is much more likely to have been a silly mistake than a dastardly plot. The BBC does have a procedure for trying to establish balance in the Question Time audience but the problem is that it’s rubbish.

First, the questions asked are hopelessly shallow – we’re all much more than how we vote. But second (and I’m not accusing Mr Mitchell of doing this), there’s nothing to stop people lying and there’s no robust system for checking whether they have or not. The production team on Question Time is not big and they don’t have time to double-check all the answers on the audience questionnaires. And so, mistakes slip through.

But isn’t there a bigger problem in the concept of balance itself? Not only are there problems with the idea that you can be accurately assessed and labelled according to whether you vote Tory or Labour (or even whether you’re a member of the Orange Order), the BBC is obsessed with the idea that every argument has equal sides and that every issue and programme needs to be “balanced”. What this means is that for every environmental scientist, there has to be a climate-change denier and for every expert in world trade, there has to be a Brexit ideologue who believes everything will be ok. It also means the production team on Question Time is left to furiously search for a sense of balance that does not exist.

This fruitless search for “balance” has also had another more disturbing consequence, which is that it has encouraged the idea that every programme should be based on an argument between the different “sides” and that concocted conflict is better than facts and evidence-based reasoning. Who needs presenters to rigorously question the facts? Much better, surely, to let the Brexiters and other blowhards spout their soundbite-able nonsense? As long as you have “balance”, it’s ok. Isn’t it?

You can see this trend in most news programmes, but you can especially see it on Question Time, and, over time, it has led to a more aggressive atmosphere. One viewer who was in the audience in Winchester recently, Jude Wilkinson, said she was shocked by the extent to which the debate was driven by emotion rather than rational analysis and the new editor of the programme herself, Hilary O’Neill, said that she wanted her programmes to be “adrenaline-packed”. But isn’t the purpose of Question Time to provide answers rather than an arena for a fist fight?

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It may be that the format of Question Time is simply no longer fit for purpose and that we need a new programme that encourages answers to the questions rather than a falsely “balanced” programme that encourages confrontation. However, there’s also a bigger question to be asked of all of us, whether we’ve ever been in the Question Time audience or not, and it’s about the role we’re all playing in lowering the standard of public debate.

Just take a look at the response to the Motherwell row. Billy Mitchell shouldn’t, by the BBC’s own rules, have been on the programme, and it’s true that he came across as angry, but the focus afterwards was on who he was and what he was wearing rather than on what he said. The thing is, he was perfectly entitled to say it – and, indeed, said it quite well and managed to land a good joke about the Barras.

But is a programme that features Mr Mitchell shouting and others shouting back at him really our best option? Couldn’t we have more news programmes that consistently hold politicians to account rather than pit them against each other in the name of balance like Question Time does?

I suppose what we really need are programmes that go after the facts and challenge politicians who try to hide them or avoid them. What we have instead are programmes wedded to a philosophy of “balance” that allows every idiot to have his say. I know it’s a concept dear to the BBC’s heart, and I know the Question Time team are doing their best, but who needs balance anyway?