This show is arguably the worst thing that the BBC airs.
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Is the BBC’s “The Big Questions” the worst thing on television?

It’s one of the broadcaster’s flagship religious programmes, yet it makes religious people look unfairly crazy.

I’m sure you’re familiar with BBC’s The Big Questions. It’s that dreadful “ethics” show that sits awkwardly sandwiched between all of the political discussion programs on a Sunday morning. In case you haven’t seen it the format is basically Question Time, with added believers.

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. Both of those things feed into its complete lack of appeal, but are not in the final analysis the reason it’s so bad.

What undermines the show is its utter contempt for everyone and everything involved.

First off, it’s called The Big Questions, and attempts, with the aid of a few invited guests and a panel of random members of the public, to answer genuinely weighty matters of philosophy and religion. This series, they asked “Can war ever be just?”. In the past they’ve discussed “Is there a Hell?” and “Is man’s dominion good for the planet?”

The idea that issues of this scale can be discussed in soundbites by “the man in the street”, plus a panel of people fame hungry and desperate enough to go on TV early Sunday morning is ludicrously reductive. Frankly, I don’t want to hear DJ Bobby Friction or French chef Jean-Christoph Novelli’s views on weighty, intellectual topics.

Even if they could get decent guests (hint – they can’t), if it took Emmanuel Swedenborg twenty odd years to write down his views on heaven and hell, you can’t get the same effect in twenty minutes with twenty people shouting over each other. Even more reductively, they’ll usually pack two topics in one episode, presumably because allowing more than twenty minutes of discussion of the same thing would make the audience’s brains explode.

Proper, challenging intellectual discussion can be done in broadcast. Look at the 1940s BBC show The Brains Trust, where they invited in a panel of experts and – shock horror – just let them talk about big issues. I’ve heard one episode where Orwell talked for about 20 minutes about his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. I can’t say it would be improved by letting a celebrity chef interrupt him.

In contrast, The Big Questions format is just terminally broken – answers to these points, by definition, are big, complicated ideas – and you can’t articulate a complex, nuanced position in a 30-second soundbite. Every time someone gets on the cusp of a decent argument, Campbell jumps in and cuts them off, and hands the mic to someone who will make a crazier, more televisual point.

That takes me on to the second huge problem with the show. Often, the guests – especially the religious guests – are picked because they have “controversial” (read: completely barking mad) views.

The archetypal Big Questions exchange is some crazed street preacher claiming they can cure cancer through prayer, a confused scientist saying “No you can’t”, and then a female CofE vicar with a nose piercing cutting across the two to say “Isn't the truth half way between these two places?”, and then the audience applauding.

In case you thought I was making that exchange up for comic effect, it occurred on the 23 March this year. The problem with this is twofold. First off, there’s the whole false equivalence between extreme and rational views, which is a problem with BBC debate more generally.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it makes religious people look unfairly crazy. In one of the supposedly flagship shows on religion, religious people are frequently represented by the absolute fringes.

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.

So, in short, the only real big question The Big Questions asks is “How long can you air an utterly charmless, insulting show before everyone agrees to stop tuning in and turning up to be insulted?”

Willard Foxton is a card-carrying Tory, and in his spare time a freelance television producer, who makes current affairs films for the BBC and Channel 4. Find him on Twitter as @WillardFoxton.

Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left