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Feedback - Moral Maze

Friday 21 March 2014, 11:55

Roger Bolton Roger Bolton

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Editor's Note: You can listen to Feedback online or download it here.

The Moral Maze is the toughest BBC programme I have ever presented.


I have only done so twice, because Michael Buerk, its regular presenter, has hardly missed an edition since it began in 1990, almost 25 years ago.

Michael Buerk Michael Buerk


Why is it so difficult?


Well it is live and has four highly intelligent very independently minded panellists who spend most of the time with their backs to the presenter as they interrogate witnesses at the opposite end of the table. The presenter has to try to shut them up if they overrun their allotted time or start to browbeat a witness, and, towards the end of the programme, chair a discussion about the key points which have been made, and then finish the programme on time.

I was shattered by the end of the editions I presented. Michael, by contrast, seems to negotiate all those hurdles without breaking sweat.

One of the panellists I had to deal with was Dr David Starkey, sometimes called ‘the rudest man in Britain’. Off air he was quite delightful. On air he could be terrifying, particularly if you tried to rein him in. He made Melanie Phillips seem almost bashful. (Another member of the panel was a young journalist called Michael Gove. Don’t know what has happened to him.) In one edition, not chaired by me, Dr Starkey’s then producer walked into the live studio, stood behind his presenter, and placed his hands round the Doctor’s neck in an effort to shut him up. It had no effect.

I also appeared as a witness in an early edition. I can’t remember what it was about but I would prefer to face an eminent QC in the High Court on a murder charge than do it again. As a witness you don’t get the chance to talk to the panel  beforehand and are led into the studio while the programme is on air, put in the very hot seat and  cross-examined. After what seems a very short time you are told to leave, having hardly got out a fraction of what you intended to say. Or that is what it feels like.

In the early years the live broadcast was followed by an enjoyable dinner at a local restaurant with Hockney drawings on the menu. Much wine was imbibed. Today sandwiches, coffee and crisps are all that is on offer. The Roundheads are now in charge.

Here is our Moral Maze feature.

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Don’t forget that the Editor of Today is coming onto Feedback soon. Please keep letting me have your comments and questions about his programme.

 

Roger Bolton presents Feedback on Radio 4.

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    Comment number 1.

    If Radio 4 is held up by four elephants standing on the back of a turtle, then a strong case could easily be made for the Moral Maze being one of those elephants: it comes as no surprise that Mr Bolton is an erstwhile presenter of this programme. More recently, David Aarononvitch has done an excellent job in the absence of Mr Buerk. It is possible that someone from Mr Buerk's team, his PA or one of his researchers, saw the inherent risk in allowing Mr Bolton to gain a foothold, as it were.

    The Moral Maze has a good selection of inquisitors and the guests are well chosen. I was impressed by Giles Frazer quoting Hume to Mr Bolton. I feel, however, that Christianity is preventing this man from realizing his full potential - it is confusing him. Less Christianity and more Hume and Nietzsche is required.

    Broadcasting the programme about Tony Benn in place of the Rebus drama was a big mistake. Broadcasting the five episodes from the great Martin Sixsmith series on Russia was not.

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    Comment number 2.

    From just a decade or two on Earth, given an education comfortably past basic, it might appear that we have fair enough understanding of ourselves and the world around us. The world however moves on. Experience if not insight comes of our riding a wave of model-making, each success amplifying the potential of the next wave.

    Sadly for our cohesion today, the totality of knowledge - of our model-making - now is far beyond the grasp of any polymath. In everyday life we are obliged to take much for granted, the wonders of technology alongside those of our moral and our biological evolution, of existence as such and of creation as possibility. Perhaps in too happy a state of grace, risk comes of lazy temptation, proud wait for revelation in terms too much of childhood, or easy acceptance of whatever explanation is new, perhaps of leadership into folly.

    Confronted with complexity, whether of the geological record, or of the mythic pantheon, the ranks of Heaven, particle physics beyond the range of our direct observation, it is tempting to think any order beyond us, and beyond any, to greet all claims with suspicion either blank or of motive, to seek or cling to explanations in the metaphysical, poetic or artistic. So it seems with The Moral Maze, trapped in an art form.

    Begun those twenty-five years ago perhaps in puzzled search, perhaps for urgent challenge, possibly with some intent to lead a new generation faster out of moral chaos, The Moral Maze finds itself by unhappy accident - or from the commercial success of its format, or conceivably in the service of obfuscation - possessed by a mock democratic despair, all voices heard except the democratic, every discussion falling at the first hurdle.

    In persistent non-address of democratic deficit, the barring of trust, the fear and greed and so the corruption from which so much of practical difficulty and moral dilemma is today created or aggravated, The Moral Maze now symbolises our moral and political predicament. Brazenly live on-air, we hear that which is seen in our national life, a ghastly parody of Moore's Law, with ever more power, passion and paid-for propaganda dedicated to our being kept just exactly where we were, with no understanding of need for a viable social contract, no awareness even of the possibility of equal partnership (beyond marriage and business), no real hope for ourselves and only prayers for our children.

    A programme that - 'for the people' - should at least hint at hope, that should admit the possibility of (equal) people-centred prioritisation - and rationalisation - of supposed moral principles and emergent social rights, that should lead on from mere fear of totalitarian prescription to positive commendation of equal freedom for our moral self-expression in conscience, somehow has become a shouting and slanging match, the promise of questioning reduced to that wearily repeated threat, "We'll be back again".

    God willing, that is.

    So very patiently.

 
 

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