A virtue

Charlie Klendjian agrees with those who think the BBC’s The Big Questions is pretty much crap, but he also says it has its virtues, or at least virtue.

First the crap part.

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).

Of course, awfulness can sometimes be all the more reason for accepting the invitation (I’m looking at you, Bill O’Reilly).

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.

That’s all the more true given that religion tends to be bad on moral issues, not better than the average citizen but sharply worse.

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.

And, he goes on to point out, Newsnight and Channel4 News did not. Newsnight and Channel4 News conspicuously declined to show the putative depiction of Mohammed (actually, as we all know, a body double), thus lending respectability to the threats against Maajid Nawaz and making his stance even more difficult and dangerous.

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.

With lots of help from outsiders, Charlie Klendjian and Maajid Nawaz and Author of Jesus and Mo among them.



  1. sacharissa says

    I always enjoy TBQ, I find it’s good for getting an understanding of the different perspectives on an issue, which is useful for topics that I know little about. Like Klendjian I often shout at the screen because people say some unpleasant and stupid things but hearing things you don’t like is part of debate. I far prefer it to Question Time where audience members saying ignorant things wastes time or the other Sunday morning programme (the one that’s on when TBQ isn’t) where they seem to have so little regard for what their guests have to say that they show tweets from the public while people are speaking.

    After the J&M episode I was saying to my husband very excitedly, “They showed it, you could see Mo clearly several times!” Shame on Channel 4 for showing the footage with the T-shirts blurred, implicitly criticising TBQ for showing it or even giving the misleading impression that the original programme went out like that.

    Another thing I like, Nicky Campbell is happy to challenge religious beliefs, he’ll even quote chapter and verse. On one occasion when a Muslim guest said that music with stringed instruments is sinful Campbell said, “I’m sorry but if your God says that then your God’s wrong!”

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