I was on the telly. Again. Five times now I have been asked to appear on The Big Questions – BBC1’s Sunday morning hour-long programme about religion, ethics and morality. I guess my journey from robust Irish Roman Catholicism to skeptical atheism has helped me to develop views and opinions but so too has a life spent asking questions, taking things apart both literally and metaphorically, to try and understand how things work and it seems the team at Mentorn – who produce the show – like something I say. This week’s episode produced a huge online response and I thought I would make some comments because I have opinions.
Just a bit of information first about the programme itself. It is broadcast live with no pause, no interval to allow for swear words to be eliminated – it feeds from and to the live programmes either side so has to be second-perfect when broadcast. Invited guests are asked to arrive at about 8.45. The show tends to be from a school and the Green Room is often a library. On arrival the production team greets you and someone will go and produce a coffee or tea for you; there are sandwiches, fruit and biscuits. As the guests arrive there is an interesting dance performed, as each moves around the room whilst avoiding all the others. Nicky Campbell, the presenter, moves amongst the participants and has a little chat with each, to explore their thoughts on the different topics. I think each of us feels that he completely agrees with us. By about 9.15 or slightly later everyone is ready and we are led into the studio. The audience is already sitting in place while the 12 or so guests are led to their seats and have microphones attached. These mics are live throughout and we are encouraged to speak when we have something to say – no use going back five minutes later when the talk has moved on. Once everyone is ready we have an intro from Nicky and then, in the 20 minutes before we are on air, we have a practice debate to get everyone used to the format and to let the technicians get the sound levels, camera shots and production needs sorted out. This week we debated the Pope’s comments about smacking children and quickly got a sense where each other stood on that particular topic but also about how we talked, who was quieter and who was pushier. Then, after a couple of trailer clips, we are live on air in front of a small audience but a bloody huge viewing public. From now on, whenever Nicky turns to you, you need to be able to respond instantly, clearly, without stumbling and express your view coherently. In addition, there are other times you want to speak and you need to use body language to persuade Nicky that he wants to turn to you and ask for your view at a significant point in the debate.
This week there were 3 topics up for discussion.
- Does counter-terrorism have a place in schools?
- Would democracy work better if voting was compulsory?
- Have beings from other planets influenced our religions?
I, of course, had views on all of these. There were 4 guests who had been invited to speak knowingly about each but the other guests are welcome to intervene too. I spoke a fair bit, I felt, in the first two debates and made some points about critical thinking, the abolition of faith schools, the difference between knowledge and belief and the importance of not fearing opinions. I moved on to the lack of democracy in a first-past-the-post-winner-takes-all voting system. I had some data to hand because I had done my homework (81% of eligible voters did not vote LibDem, 76% did not vote Tory so the coalition’ claim to a mandate is really illegitimate). I made a point about gang membership – many of the middle class cohort present did not appreciate that in some inner city schools that is what brings terror to the pupils. Anyway, I felt as if I had said my piece without being obnoxious and without being an enthusiastic puppy, speaking all the time.
When the time came for the third debate I had already seen lots of WTF comments online earlier in the day. Why on earth are we discussing this? I knew that the Spiritist and the Aetherius Society speakers would be there, and the Bishop of Southampton, but had missed that a fundamentalist xtian who I have met before would also be there. I knew some of the things I could say, but I didn’t know how the talk would pan out so I didn’t know what angles I would take and how quickly I would dive in to say something. As the first speaker from the Aetherius Society talked, the giggles in the audience were audible. I knew what his line was so wasn’t too surprised but I did find some of his statements astounding. I think some of the screen grabs of me show how much I was trying not to laugh. Then the Spiritist joined in, followed by the fundamentalist, and I decided to let them talk to each other, to show the sheer foolishness of what they were saying, before intervening. It was clear that they had fallen into the “My fantasy world is better than your fantasy world” cycle and I thought they could do more to damn themselves than I could by joining in. My breaking point was when the fundamentalist demanded from the guy who believed Jesus came from Venus “Where’s your evidence?”. Sheer television magic but then I decided it was time for some rationality. I think I did a fairly good job not only of highlighting what they had already done in terms of creating a science fiction fantasy but also of nailing the guy who claimed prayer could cure cancer. I hope I did it firmly but without being nasty, so that viewers would think about the issues rather than the attitude. By good fortune (and a little understanding of Nicky Campbell’s body language) I got the last word in as he turned to wrap up. Magic is not a thing.
After the show we are ushered out of the room quickly to let the team break down the set and get on the road. We go back to the Green Room to pick up our belongings, grab a biscuit and go home. There is a little bit of chat but not much. The production team were very complimentary and suggested I may be invited again. Then out to the car, check Facebook and Twitter (because I have an ego too) and then head home.
I’m biased of course but I thought it was cracking television. It evoked loads of critical comments afterwards on twitter but the key thing is people had stayed with it to shout at the screen. I think I had 60 or 70 new followers on twitter and loads of friends said nice things there and on Facebook. A few tweets were derogatory about my beard which, I admit, is a bit contrived. Someone said it was a poor state of affairs when the best voice of reason came from someone looking like me. But I’m thick skinned. In my dreams.
In all the negative comments, particularly about the god/spaceman/interplanetary vibrations participants, there was one thing that really stands out for me and that is why I wrote this post, even though it was a long journey to get to this point. So many people have used language that is insulting to people with mental health problems. I lost count of the times people used words like nutter, crazy, mental. Lots of tweeters suggested the local mental hospital had left the doors open, or the guests had been collected from there. I found it unsettling and distressing. In the show I tried very hard not to use such language. I don’t know if I succeeded but it was live and I was trying hard not to mess up. Writing online, when you can edit, delete, reshape what you are saying I think it is wrong in every way to use such language. Sure the conversation was way off the rationality scale, certainly there was a lack of irony in the way people defended their fantasy idols, but this is not the same as mental illness. Using terms related to mental illness as a form of abuse is something we need to think about and stop. Ironically, this programme was broadcast only three days after the Time To Change/Time To Talk campaign had aired nationally. We have a lot to learn. I feel bad that I didn’t call out the tweeters individually but there were so many of them. Please let’s work together to stop this?