Media: Moral combat is going down the tube: To some it's smug pontification, to others intellectual vigour. Martin Rosenbaum explores the BBC's maze as it moves to television

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The Independent Online
David Coomes, producer of The Moral Maze, is getting increasingly exasperated in the control room as he imparts earpiece instructions to the programme presenter, Michael Buerk: 'No more Starkey, no more Starkey . . . no more Starkey]' As usual, David Starkey, the maverick historian who has become broadcasting's Mr Rude, is ever so slightly out of control. His victim is the Rev Graham Shaw, co-founder of the Sea of Faith, the movement for what its opponents like to call atheist priests.

'I am famous on this programme for referring to Dame Jill Knight's hat,' Starkey has just told Shaw. 'I am now going to refer to your skirt - that absurd, archaic, clerical dress of a cassock you are wearing. Aren't you straining at gnats and swallowing camels?'

Before the programme Coomes had told Starkey he didn't want any blood on the carpet today. 'Sometimes I give instructions to unleash him,' says Coomes, 'but it's not appropriate to the tone of today's programme.'

They are discussing the case of Anthony Freeman, the vicar who was sacked for doubting the objective existence of God. Later in the show Starkey is better behaved. He describes the Ven George Austin, Archdeacon of York, merely as a hypocrite. Last time he was on, Starkey said of him: 'His fatness, his smugness, his absurdity - doesn't he genuinely make you want to vomit?'

This is all part of the fun of The Moral Maze, the Radio 4 discussion programme dedicated to tackling the moral issues underlying the week's events and which from next month will have a BBC 2 series. It has an enthusiastic following who delight in its brand of gladiatorial argument. Four or five 'witnesses' are grilled remorselessly by the panel, who are sometimes as insulting to each other as they are to their guests.

Apart from Starkey, the regular panellists are Rabbi Hugo Gryn (replaced last week by David Cook, moral theorist from Oxford University); Janet Daley, the Times columnist, deft at trapping the less thoughtful in logical irregularities; and the journalist Edward Pearce, who proves there really are 500,000 words in the English language. It is chaired mischievously by Buerk and overseen by Coomes, whose control room sign language features gesticulations for 'hold back' and 'go get him]'

For Buerk the aggression means that those with a message get tested much more rigorously than on any other show. 'The programme does not make any concessions, either intellectually or to the politeness normal in current affairs broadcasting,' he says. 'The intellectual vigour allows us to indulge in abuse.' Daley agrees: 'The programme is about critical analysis. Its success is that it is uncompromisingly intelligent.'

The Moral Maze has been nurtured from hesitant beginnings in 1990 by Michael Green, Controller of Radio 4. The million or so listeners to the prime radio slot after the Today programme now get their moral dose on most Thursday mornings. 'It is extremely important to Radio 4, because it has brought a vein into the mix which was overdue,' Green says. 'Listeners have an immense appetite for discussion which comes at public affairs from a moral perspective.' Last month it was picked out for praise in director-general John Birt's annual review of BBC performance.

But to some critics the programme consists mainly of smug pontification unimpeded by facts. Suzanne Moore, the Guardian columnist, has twice appeared as a witness to discuss sexual harassment and women in management.

'It's not a dialogue,' she says. 'The witnesses are just bait. Most of the time panellists have made up their minds 25 years ago and don't respond to what the witnesses say. It's a bundle of prejudices dressed up as analysis. You could listen to these kind of conversations down the pub. People just enjoy it for the insults.'

Moore also objects to the political composition of the panel. She adds: 'It ran out of moral issues about a year ago and it now does day-to-day social issues. That's where the notion of balance should come in. They are right-wing. When it comes to any issue about women, the panellists tend to treat it as a kind of trivial joke.'

This is not a problem for Coomes, who argues: 'Unlike many programmes, there is a bias towards the right but the mix works in such a way that it's not a problem. We are certainly not bound by political correctness. They are independent thinkers and you can't guarantee what they are going to say when they open their mouths.'

Each Wednesday night, the team meets for dinner at an unpretentious Italian restaurant near Broadcasting House - 'not a sun-dried tomato in sight', claims Buerk. The week's topic is hardly discussed. The participants tend to hint teasingly at their best lines rather than reveal them in advance. But the regular meals are a crucial part of the bonding process, encouraging their easy familiarity. It may be a team of egos, but it is a team none the less.

Over breakfast next morning they decide in what order to take the witnesses and who gets first shot at whom. They limber up for the show with some preliminary expressions of opinion on the witnesses (this time including the anti-

homosexuality evangelical vicar Tony Higton): 'Who are all these dim clerics? . . . We'll get no sense out of him . . . A lot of people will enjoy someone giving him a going over . . . I've dealt with Highton before - I once had a whole amphitheatre of people on the feet raging against him.'

The current radio series ends on 8 September. Two days later a six-programme series will begin on BBC 2 on Saturday evenings. The panel seems genuinely unsure whether it will work. Pearce regarded the pilot TV programme in January, with its fancy set and rehearsed witnesses, as a working demonstration of everything that is worst about television: 'Over-preparation, interference, fidgety cameras, pretentious backdrops - the whole thing was a shambles.' The lessons have been learnt, says Coomes.

Daley, Pearce and Starkey will appear on TV, but as the show is scheduled for Saturdays, not Rabbi Gryn. Listeners- turned-viewers, who will miss his moral guidance, will have to attend his sermons at the West London Synagogue instead.

(Photograph omitted)