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.

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.