Radio: We're like pensioners at a wrestling match

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The Independent Culture
A s it is Easter Sunday, I shall begin by examining the BBC's most popular religious programme - The Archers. (I shall leave it alone for the next few weeks, I promise, and as much for my sanity as yours.) Bear with me.

This column is delivered too early to consider Friday night's edition, so it was not heartlessness that stopped me from mentioning Pat Archer's apparent heart attack last week - just timing. It was a great scene, played to the hilt, and it was with a lovely feeling of schadenfreude that I, along with millions of others, tuned in on Sunday to see what had happened.

Of course, I need not have bothered. For if there are any rules in The Archers, they are these: 1. If two characters are talking in a moving car, there will be an accident or, at the very least, a combine harvester blocking the road. 2. Nothing ever happens on a Sunday. Why? Because the Sunday Archers is an innovation, and Archers listeners are innovation- resistant. To get us to tune in on Sunday evenings will take years, if not decades, of bogus cliff-hangers. Until then, Sunday is kept free of incident, and free of interest.

The other reason lies in its anxious second-guessing of the national mood. For things in The Archers are not quite like real life; it is a sort of magical-realist version of it, like a Salman Rushdie novel. For example, about 80 per cent of Archers characters go to church every Sunday, as opposed to 2 per cent of real Britons. So instead of Pat Archer lying in a coma in Borchester General, we had Alastair and Shula and her revolting son and the rest singing not one but two verses of "Ride on, ride on in majesty". Plus a sermon. And Pat? It had only been a panic attack. What a rotten con. So: don't ever listen to The Archers on a Sunday. Don't listen to it tonight, especially. There will be egg-rolling.

The Moral Maze (R4) celebrated its 200th edition on Wednesday with the biggie implied by the programme's very existence: Evil - does it exist? The regular panel were all on typical form. I will summarise their arguments in their own words. David Starkey says evil is "a mere yah-boo word, a hindrance to any kind of serious understanding.... Seeing the world as `evil' and `good' is exactly what leads to evil." Janet Daley (sardonically): "If we're shaped inexorably by social influences, then no one is responsible for his actions, either good or bad, guilt is defined out of existence, there is no such thing as moral choice," etcetera. Ian Hargreaves said "no one is wholly evil" but I dozed off for the rest of his sentence, and Dr David Cook, "the medical ethicist from Oxford", although he's actually from Scotland, said that we were all like the apostle Paul.

If you do not know The Moral Maze, the drill is this. The panellists posture like pre-match wrestlers, and then try to bully and humiliate guests who often know far more about the subject under discussion than they do. Every week you can be depressed or indeed naughtily thrilled by the spectacle of informed opinion being jumped up and down on by theory or prejudice.

Like frenzied pensioners at wrestling matches, audiences have strange love-hate feelings for certain panellists. Janet Daley is the most useful member of the team, in that her somewhat rancid free-market rightism clears up every moment of moral or ethical confusion you may have had, like this: everything she says is wrong. It really is as simple as that. Last week she was convinced that saying society could influence people to act in malicious ways was to "define evil out of existence". She was fond of the phrase and considered its repetition gave her argument substance enough.

David Starkey is the cleverest member of the panel, which would be bad enough, but enrages people further by perversely, from sheer intellectual impishness, taking weird positions whose main attraction for him is that no one has ever taken them before. It may occur to him that there is a reason for this, but he keeps quiet about it. He is, in a funny way, admirable. "I may be tiresome but I'm not evil," as he said at one point.

The other two panellists are makeweights by comparison. Cook sounds religious and Hargreaves a decent woolly liberal, hired for his very reasonableness, which is not what we listen to the MM for.

This anniversary edition had the panel for once not quite saying boo to Helen Bamber, director of the Medical Foundation for the Victims of Torture. "We have 16,500 people on our books," she said in an understated fashion, which shut people up. Oliver James, the psychologist, worked Daley up into a frenzy by quoting a scientific study of criminal behaviour which did not agree with Janet Daley.

Joanna Bogle from the Association of Catholic Women was rude, ignorant, and offensive (what, she asked, was all the fuss about the Spanish Inquisition?) A place on the panel surely beckons. For her, things are not so much a moral maze as a moral straight line. Or a moral dot. And at the end of the day we were not only none the wiser, but not even better informed.