QUESTION TIME is the kind of TV show that spends much of the year trying to drum up support for itself. Anxious trails from David Dimbleby tell us that we'll be lucky enough to hear the views of a panel made up of cold sponges, wet towels and old flannels. It's as if he's warning us not to switch over to Newsnight or we'll miss hearing from someone as thrilling as Margaret Beckett - a politician sadly afflicted by a strange illness.
She's wasted away so much that she is now nothing but a small mouthpiece. Her face, pale and lined, drained of life, speaks of some unvoiced tragedy, as if she's whispering to her party leadership, 'I said all I was asked to say and still you cast me aside.' In case you can't imagine the extent to which the politicians who come on that show mouth the party line, I have inside information. I've been on radio's Any Questions.
Sitting next to me sometime before New Labour got in was Margaret Hodge. At that time she was busy shedding any leftish clothes still sticking to her from her time on Islington council. This meant losing her energetic, directorial manner, and taking on the monotone of middle management.
To help her she had cue cards given to her from Labour HQ. That was the week (you'll have forgotten it) the broadsheets were saying Tony Blair had revealed New Labour's 'philosophy'. Philosophy? What this amounted to was 'community'.
As New Labour prepares to lay waste to Baghdad, break the firefighters, hand London Underground over to rogue traders and stream education from top to bottom, we don't hear the word 'community' too often.
But back in those days Margaret Hodge knew about it. She had the word on her central office cue cards-underlined. So whatever question came up, she chipped in with a quick 'community'. The political sophistication of it all was staggering.
In a time of crisis, Question Time gets more interesting. Last week, there was an energetic wrestle between George Galloway and Barbara Cartland. Oh no, she's dead, isn't she? Well, being dead is no obstacle to being on the programme.
Look at that Minister for Killing Iraqis-a grey faced loon called O'Brien. Watch out for him in the next few weeks. He's the kind of man who makes a morgue seem like a good place to go on a Friday night.
But also on the programme was a smooth-tongued Thatcherite worm called Jenkin. Desperately disappointed that New Labour is as keen on bombing children as he is, he was delighted to find a position more to the right on asylum seekers. He made one comment that seemed to float by unnoticed-a comment that chilled me.
Here it is: 'People who live in areas where they have high ethnic populations begin to feel genuinely afraid about who's living in their area.' I get the drift. White people (who are real people) are entitled to be afraid of ethnic populations (who are not people) who are living in white people's areas. The question being discussed was about asylum seekers. In a flash this slipped into talk of terrorists and Hepatitis B.
In the midst of that no one noticed that Jenkin had moved the subject on to saying that what white people really have to worry about is anyone who isn't white. What worries me is that someone like Jenkin is living in the area of my TV.