Why I can’t bring myself to enjoy BBC The Big Questions 17 January 2016

I should like BBC The Big Questions. I’m doing a PhD on religion, I did my MA and undergrad in religion, I write for and edit a magazine on religion – by all accounts, I’m exactly the type of person who should be watching The Big Questions. And I’ve tried to watch it, so many times. I’ve tried watching it live, I’ve tried watching it on iPlayer, I’ve tried to watch while it’s on in the background. But the only time I’ve ever made it through the full show is when I was in the studio audience, and I would have walked out but for the live television camera and being wedged in between several guests.

I’m glad to know however I’m not only the person who doesn’t enjoy it. I recently came across this great piece ‘Is the BBC’s “The Big Questions” the worst thing on television?’ And I think Willard Foxton is absolutely right when he concludes that one of the problems with the show is that: –

The vast bulk of people with a bit of faith in their lives are perfectly sensible and ordinary – you’d have to look long and hard to find a priest, vicar or imam who would recommend prayer alone to cure illnesses. The desire among the producers for “watchable controversy” makes the show completely unrepresentative and toxic.

I had my own experience of exactly what Foxton describes. Sometime back, March 2014, Boris Johnson announced that ‘children at risk of radicalisation should be in care’. That Sunday, BBC The Big Questions was in Cardiff. I received a phone call from a researcher on the show sometime around Tuesday, asking if I’d be interested in being a “front row guest” who would contribute to the debate. She told me they were working on the wording of the question, but it would be something along the lines of “can religion harm children?” I was hesitant, but thought the question wasn’t entirely reductive, and I should hopefully be able to contribute something meaningful to the discussion. She identified me as being on the “pro-religion” side of the argument, and they would have others holding opposite views. I agreed.

A few days later, I got a phone call to be told the wording of the question had been changed, it was now…

The researcher didn’t really seem to understand why I had a problem with the question, and why was no longer on the “pro-religion” side of the debate, it was “pretty much the same thing after all”. I declined to appear on the show. I was then asked if I knew someone who could replace me, since they were now at a loss of a guest. Sure, I recommened an academic who had just completed a large research project on children and religious upbringing. “No, we’re not really looking for an academic view”.

The Big Questions does hold the possibility of being a more coherent show with slightly more depth, but its own practices seem designed to exclude these possibilities.


About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.