In defence of BBC’s “The Big Questions”

J and Mo

By LSS Secretary Charlie Klendjian *

At the beginning of this year I was invited to participate as a front row guest on BBC1’s Sunday morning television programme “The Big Questions”. You can watch the episode on YouTube here.

I must be frank. When the email invite appeared in my inbox I hesitated before accepting it. Not only would I have to overcome a discomfort of public speaking (I’m the quiet shy type), but I would also have to swallow a good degree of pride because I’ve always thought the programme is a bit – how can I put this politely – rubbish. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve screamed at my telly whilst watching the programme, or thrown the remote control on the sofa and stormed into the kitchen to pour some more aviation-fuel strength black coffee to make my heart beat even faster. When I told friends and family about my forthcoming breakthrough media appearance a number of them asked when I was planning to do a DNA test on the Jeremy Kyle Show (some of my friends and family are hilarious).

It appears there are others who don’t hold the Big Questions in the highest esteem. Last week there was a piece in the New Statesman by Willard Foxton called Is the BBC’s “The Big Questions” the worst thing on television?

To give you a brief flavour of Mr Foxton’s views on this programme:

“It’s dreadful, arguably the worst thing that the BBC airs. It has production values you’d expect from a small business’s Youtube video and is presented by Nicky Campbell, a man who displays all the charisma of an eggy fart on a packed commuter train.”

I can’t lie. There is indeed much to grumble about. The programme reduces complex moral and legal ingredients to a concentrated jus of pithy little soundbites, a point Foxton makes in his piece. It also asks misleading questions of its audience. For example, the tagline for the episode I appeared on was, “Should human rights always outweigh religious rights?”. This overlooks the fact that religious belief and manifestation of religious belief are themselves human rights. And as a secularist I am constantly enraged by the assumption, which is helpfully perpetuated by this programme and by the media and our political class more generally, that any discussion of moral issues, or human rights, must by definition involve religious figures (or “leaders” as they’re often generously called). Of course, religious figures are perfectly entitled to contribute to the pressing moral concerns of our age but they must compete on a flat playing field on the strengths of their actual arguments, just like everyone else, and not on the basis of an assumed, highly elevated, privileged and often very undeserved platform.

But my intention here is not to twist a knife. No, I want to focus instead on one outstanding contribution the Big Questions has made to our public discourse. It is an achievement that must not go unrecognised by secularists or indeed by anyone who places a high value on free speech.

To put it mildly the episode I appeared on created something of a stir. The Big Questions became the first programme to depict Mohammed on British television and in doing so it successfully challenged a de facto blasphemy code in this country which has a sorry evolutionary trail leading directly back to the Salman Rushdie affair.

The depiction wasn’t a close-up, or particularly clear, or particularly long-lasting, but it was just enough to create history. It was a brief brush of feet on the sandy surface of the moon. And I am very proud to be able to say: I was on that programme. It was one small step for my media “career”; one giant leap for secularism.

Shortly after the programme aired my fellow panellist and fellow secularist Maajid Nawaz, co-founder and Chair of the anti-extremism think tank the Quilliam Foundation, tweeted one of the images that the programme showed (the one at the top of this post) and said that he, as a Muslim, was not offended by it. Sadly this was just too much for some people to bear. Not only were some people offended by the depiction but they were also offended that others were not offended. So they did the rational thing and called for death and violence. Now that is offensive (and more importantly, it’s criminal).

Yes, that’s right, very shortly after Nawaz tweeted the picture he received a number of death threats and there was also a campaign calling for his de-selection as the Liberal Democrat Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn. The LSS fully supported Nawaz and I am pleased to report he is still very much alive and very much a PPC. I wish him all the best in the May 2015 General Election. A secularist who is willing to take a stand for free speech in the face of overwhelming religious bullying is precisely the kind of public servant I would like to see in the Palace of Westminster. If I was a resident of Hampstead and Kilburn I would put a very thick cross by Nawaz’s name come May 2015, even though I hold no flame for his party.

The programme was filmed a week in advance. I am reliably informed that the BBC went into something of a tailspin during the week before transmission as it grappled with whether to show the image of Mohammed. Thankfully, good sense prevailed and the BBC decided that a fleeting glance of a man with a beard wasn’t beyond the pale for a country that gave the world the Magna Carta and JS Mill, or that helped bring about the very welcome demise of Adolf Hitler and Nazism.

I was at that point looking forward to this de facto blasphemy code being challenged on a more regular basis – by which I mean not necessarily just depictions of Mohammed but a more sane, open and honest discussion of Islam more generally.

Sadly, we switched almost instantly to a reverse gear. A few weeks later Channel 4 News, and then Newsnight, in covering Nawaz’s plight, refused to show the image he had tweeted. In those moments they each helped to reinforce the very taboo that Nawaz was fighting against (which I discussed in more detail here).

And this is the crucial point, and this is why there will always be a big place in my heart for the Big Questions: in the few seconds in January in which it showed an image of Mohammed the Big Questions demonstrated it had more courage, more integrity, more credibility, and a greater commitment to free speech than Newsnight and Channel 4 News combined.

Newsnight is the flagship news programme of our public service broadcaster, and they bottled it. Channel 4 News is the flagship news programme of Channel 4 – a station that specifically prides itself on being “edgy” and “controversial” – and they bottled it too. Everyone involved in those disgraceful decisions can hold their head in shame, and everyone involved in the decision to show Mohammed on the Big Questions can puff their chest out and hold their head very high indeed.

When it comes to secularism the stakes don’t get much higher than restrictions on free speech which are enforced by the implicit or explicit threat of violence. So go ahead. Make your snobby, witty remarks about the Big Questions. Take your cheap shots. But when you’ve finished be gracious enough to give them credit for standing up to the pitchfork crew. They deserve a gold medal.

A couple of weeks ago Newsnight ran a special on Maajid Nawaz and this time – mercifully – they did show the image of Mohammed. So they can now polish their silver medal with pride. And they can thank the Big Questions for organising the race.

Don’t ever forget this: the Big Questions, that embarrassing little boy of television programmes, showed the big boys how to do their job – and how to behave like grown-ups.

Charlie Klendjian will be speaking at the protest against the Law Society’s decision to issue guidance on Sharia law in Chancery Lane, London on Monday 28 April at 5pm. More details here

* Charlie Klendjian was LSS Secretary and an LSS member from Oct 2012 to Aug 2015

Views expressed are not necessarily those of the LSS

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