A nation captivated by the Morality Business

Mark Lawson
Monday 28 March 1994 23:02

AN ALIEN arriving on this planet in 1994 would almost certainly report, in its first dispatch to Martian High Command, that here was a planet apparently obsessed with morality. What the earthlings call the middle classes, the visitor would inform its superiors, are all talking about a sound-wave entertainment called The Moral Maze, a 'radio programme' in which four 'people' - although at least two of them seem to come from a planet other than Earth - discuss the right and wrong responses to given situations.

Simultaneously, the astonished envoy would report, a cathode-ray entertainment has begun called Do The Right Thing, a 'television programme' in which 'celebrities' and 'you at home' vote on how humans in a series of 'short playlets' should behave.

I would offer the Martian three other pieces of evidence. The first is the appearance in two newspapers that are particularly read by the middle classes - the Independent and the Daily Mail - of features, both called 'Dilemmas', in which problems of proper behaviour, both moral and social, are addressed.

Second, I would tell the extra-planetary analyst about a new development in British broadcasting. For years, it has been argued that radio and television current affairs programmes are increasingly filled with speculation about forthcoming events: this complaint intensified in advance of yesterday's launch of the 24-hour BBC news and sport station, Radio 5 Live. Yet, viewing and listening in recent weeks, I have the impression that straight reporting has been replaced not by speculation but by moral analysis. An edition last week of Radio 4's The World At One led with two such discussions: 'What should children be told about the sexual applications of Mars Bars?' followed by 'Should German soldiers march through London on VE day?'

Third, having explained to my Martian what a dinner party was, I would pass on my observation that, whereas the average middle- class dinner party of a few years ago resembled the House of Commons - 'The Tories are killing the NHS'/'Well, Labour would kill the economy' - such meals are now more likely to conform to the shape of The Moral Maze: 'Gender-selection by parents would affect the male-female balance in the population'/'But motorcyle accidents do the same - and nobody bans Yamahas]'

Tapping this data into its electronic personal organiser, the Martian would say: 'This is extraordinary. I will report back at once that I have discovered the most moral nation in the universe.'

'Ah,' I would reply, 'not so fast,' explaining that it was an interesting question - not yet explored in any of the forums just discussed - whether a nation that becomes captivated by the idea of morality is in awe of it or in search of it.

In explaining the growth of what might be called The Morality Business, the first witness I will call (as the chairman, Michael Buerk, likes to say on The Moral Maze) is God.

What He might say is that a decline in religious worship and certainties has resulted in the discussion of morality among people replacing the imposition of morality on people by priests, at least in the Christian religions.

There is something in this. It is hard to imagine The Moral Maze on, say, Iranian radio. ('A last word from you, Ayatollah?' 'Cut their hands off, Michael.') Perhaps, in Britain, radio and television morality shows are taking over spiritual leadership from the churches. Radio 4's The Moral Maze - with Edward Pearce as a sinister (Anthony) Trollopian bishop, and Janet Daley as the rector's highly strung (Joanna) Trollopian wife - is the High Church of the form, in which participants bandy Latin tags. BBC 1's Do The Right Thing, hosted by Terry Wogan, is the happy-clappy version for all the family. Eventually, in future generations, a traditional saying will be dramatically recast. Instead of doctors being accused of 'playing God' they will be charged with 'playing Janet Daley' or 'acting like they're Ed Pearce' while others mutter: 'I never feel those Woganites actually believe anything.'

Our second witness in this investigation is the politician. I have suggested that partisan political argument - Left versus Right - has to some extent been replaced in the culture by moral debate. If this is so, then one possible explanation would be that government has become particularly immoral: a Martian visitor might, in this connection, be taken to the Scott inquiry on arms sales to Iraq, the select committee on the Pergau dam affair, and,

in Washington, the various 'Whitewater' investigations.

But it is my belief, as this column has argued before, that the Western politicians of today are no more corrupt - are indeed, in many cases, rather less so - than has been standard for the past 40 years. What has happened is that the media - and, to a lesser extent, the electorate - have become enthused by the pursuit of corruption.

One reason is, I think, the collapse of political certainties. Few Labour supporters, or even Labour politicians, believe in their hearts that the economy would more obviously prosper, or unemployment lessen, or crime reduce, under a Labour government, or that privatised industries should be renationalised. With parties less and less distinct in policies, opposition supporters differentiate themselves from governments in terms of honesty and competence. Thus, much of the moral debate now to be heard in our society - particularly on news and current affairs shows - is a surrogate for partisan argument.

Our third and final witness is a scientist - perhaps a geneticist, infertility doctor or computer technician. For there is no doubt that the technological complexity of the modern world increases the number of possible moral dilemmas. While some recent agonies - What should children know about sex? How far should we forgive the Germans? - result from shifts in ideological positions, a greater number follow from procedures only now possible: births to post-menopausal women, selection of gender before birth, antenatal awareness of a human's likely genetic destiny.

So I think we would have to warn our Martian not to report back that it had discovered the most moral nation on earth, but rather one in an anguished transition of the spirit, convulsed and uncertain. We might also counsel against the idea that discussion of moral issues is itself a civilising influence in society.

Michael Buerk, the presenter of The Moral Maze, was, when the series began, a gentle, liberal, humane presence. However, two years of confinement with the vocal tics and hostile ideologies of the programme's panellists has rendered his character rather volatile. Last week - 'Janet, is that a question or a life history? . . . Janet, will you please stop talking for a moment? . . . Janet, shut up . . .' - it was increasingly clear that this series, planned to raise the tenor of ethical debate, will end with four throttled bodies under the studio table, and a trembling Mr Buerk being led away, while his neighbours say he seemed such a quiet man. The topic for ethical discussion at the time, incidentally, was how to reduce violence in society.

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