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John McCarthy
BBC Radio 4
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I think that one of the most terrifying things I have done in broadcasting is to chair the Moral Maze.

It can't have been much fun for the audience either, I'm sure they preferred Michael Buerk, who is very rarely absent from the presenter's chair as he values this programme as much as any he has done.

Why was it so terrifying for me? Well the panellists of course. David Starkey was a member on one occasion and he paid little attention to me, sinking his teeth ever deeper into what he saw as the woefully inadequate arguments of a witness.

In one edition I presented, live as usual, Dr Starkey was being particularly vituperative, so the producer walked into the studio and put his hands around the good doctor's neck and appeared to squeeze. Whatever he did it was effective and I got a word in edgeways.

The other difficulty is the geography of the studio. The desk is oval, with the presenter at one end, two of the panel on each side and the witness opposite the presenter. This means of course that when the panel turned to the witness they turn away from the presenter. I was reduced to plucking unavailingly on panellists' arms to shut them up. And at the end of all this I was supposed to help the witnesses make their points, summarise the arguments, develop some key observations, and get the programme out on time, before the pips.

Michael seems to paddle calmly over the surface of the water, seamlessly directing affairs.

However this week on Feedback we had a number of emails suggesting that he hadn't done his job in last week's edition about the monarchy, and allowed one of the witnesses, a particularly feisty Joan Smith, to be "trampled" by Michael Portillo. Others saw it differently, but I put the criticism to Michael Buerk, when I interviewed him in the Moral Maze London office, which looks as if it was last refurbished by Lord Reith.

I began by asking MB what made a good MM edition? Did he always hope for a punch up?

Roger Bolton presents Feedback

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  • Comment number 4. Posted by mcgillianaire

    on 23 Feb 2012 06:51

    I thought Buerk lost control of the programme and that it was one of the worst I've heard in recent memory - and that's from someone who absolutely adores the show. I'd really been looking forward to its return to the airwaves and was rather disappointed with the outcome. There were some great episodes before it last went off the air. Last week's episode was much better and hopefully last night's is back to normal.

    However I don't think Portillo trampled over Smith, like the first commenter said. He just seemed annoyed about something and took it out on Smith, they certainly seemed to be on opposite ends of the argument.

    I thought an earlier episode (from last March, I think) about merit and the monarchy was much better than this one. And I was rather surprised by Buerk's responses on Feedback. I absolutely hate it when the participants constantly talk over each other, however I wasn't aware until you interviewed him, that the show was broadcast live. I'll cut him a lot of slack for that and thanks to your descriptions of hosting the show above, I'll cut him a bit more slack for that too. It certainly doesn't sound like the sort of programme I'd like to host, but it's an absolute treat to listen to.

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  • Comment number 3. Posted by philthehombre

    on 22 Feb 2012 02:45

    With neck squeezings, arms pluckings and tramplings, MM sounds something of a splended, although for some, terrifying abattoir. Lord Reith would surely want to be in the running red thick of it.

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  • Comment number 2. Posted by Sizwe M

    on 20 Feb 2012 18:05

    Roger, I quite enjoyed the programme actually - it was the first time I listened in. I wonder if the SABC - the local broadcaster in South Africa, would consider hosting a show of this nature. Given the hotly contested topics because of the country's colourful past I think the show would be supremely entertaining. I can just imagine the moral maze around Pieter Mulder's land reform comments recently, for example (he had publicly announced in a parliamentary address that he did not believe black South Africans were necessarily entitled to any land claims). It has inspired no shortage of controversial commentary across media channels but nothing like this show!

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by newlach

    on 17 Feb 2012 22:37

    Michael Portillo was on very poor form when questioning Joan Smith. He stated that "the Queen is uniquely unprivileged" and I think his inability to justify this preposterous utterance brought out his natural aggression. He interrupted excessively but "trampled" no one. He lost control. Joan Smith gave no quarter and the programme left me with the firm impression that Michael Portillo is on the Royal payroll (well, maybe he just attends one or two Royal banquets every year!).

    I agree with the point made by Michael Buerk that the guests are able to hold their own. I do remember, however, one guest cracking under the interrogation of David Starkey. The man was reduced to blurting out something about where he was educated in an attempt to shore up his argument.

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