Zoe Alford was one member of the student audience who wasn’t so convinced about the “free speech” part of the BBC’s new live debate show hosted in Swansea earlier this month.

I think my friends are already sick to death of me mentioning that I was on TV – the show in question being the BBC Three panel show, Free Speech. The programme was filmed live at Brangywn Hall on a Wednesday night, so on an evening when most students are gearing up for a trip down Wind St, I was sweating under stage lights whilst trying desperately not to get hit on the head with a boom mic. It sounds like an especially trivial story to keep repeating when you consider that I didn’t even get the opportunity to contribute any points to the discussion. In fact, blink and you’ll probably miss me sitting in the back row of the audience. But as a girl who not long ago would’ve rather eaten her own foot than raise a point in class, I consider it more as a small personal triumph rather than a massive deal to brag about. Although I was also sat within touching distance of Rick Edwards.

Anyway, for those of you who don’t know, the programme is meant to encourage debate over a range of current affairs, particularly those considered to be relevant to its 18-30 year old target audience. It’s often promoted by the BBC as a sort of Question Time for a younger generation. However, although I really enjoyed being part of such a lively show, the issues surrounding control on a show intended to be all about freedom of expression soon became very apparent.

Free Speech

The decision to broadcast the show pre-watershed inevitably meant that certain members of the audience had to be employed specifically in order to control and maintain a heated, albeit  family-friendly discussion. Though it seems reasonable to have some form of support to prevent bad language from being shown, I was (perhaps naively), disappointed that the argument wasn’t allowed to flow as naturally as it should have. I think it would be fair to argue that the show may have sacrificed some of its intensity and integrity in their attempt to attract the widest audience possible. You don’t need to swear to make a good point, although I feel if the show were able to move to a 9pm over an 8pm slot and therefore be shown after the watershed, there may have been less need for crowd control, allowing a more genuine and passionate debate to develop.

What also disappointed me about my experience was that even matters as trivial as seating arrangements were altered by the production team; despite us all being informed that we could choose their own places. I was originally sat next to a girl who was there to watch with her two friends. However, as a combined group of four similar-looking women, her two friends were ordered to move to the other side, leaving her out from the group. Perhaps this sort of thing is standard practise on television shows, but I couldn’t help but feel a little bit sorry for the girl who had to spend the rest of the filming sitting in an awkward silence. And while I acknowledge that the point of the whole arrangement was to produce a marketable televised product, again I couldn’t but feel a little bit foolish for assuming that things wouldn’t be as strictly controlled as they were.

Audience

This argument against increased levels of control can also become problematic in itself. The main issue surrounding ‘free speech’ – not just the show, but also the wider concept – is that inevitably your views can always offend other people. The topics discussed in the Swansea filming included topics such as whether gay couples should have the right to get married. While I myself am completely behind gay marriage, other people on the show were not, for religious or other personal reasons. On another subject, some people argued that women who dress in a certain way are somewhat responsible for putting themselves at risk. And although I personally see such views as hateful or damaging, as a believer in free speech, it would be completely wrong and hypocritical of me deny anyone the right to have these opinions. Which begs the question; can there ever really be such a thing as ‘free speech’? And if so, can it exist and thrive within the setting of a constructed television show?

By Zoe Alford

Did you watch the Swansea episode of BBC Free Speech? Let us know whether you agree with Zoe’s views by leaving a comment or emailing us at thesirenswansea@hotmail.co.uk.

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