Michael Buerk says freedom of speech is ‘seriously under threat’ – he has lost himself in a moral maze

Buerk wonders if there are now things that are ‘off limits’, and of course there are, but there always were

Sean O'Grady
Thursday 02 December 2021 11:21
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<p>‘Moral Maze’ presenter Michael Buerk</p>

‘Moral Maze’ presenter Michael Buerk

When I heard that lovely Michael Buerk – a fine journalist by the way who broke the news of the Ethiopian famine of 1984, which gave us Live Aid – was himself in the news for saying that the BBC is too “woke” and that freedom of speech is “seriously under threat”, I feared the worst. Could it be that the massive gobfest that is The Moral Maze had been, as the phrase goes, “cancelled”?

Well, it hasn’t. Things like that actually don’t happen on Radio 4 because, well, Radio 4 is the most – small c – conservative institution in the conservative BBC, which is in turn one of the more constant features of national life in this deeply conservative land (whatever fantasies Nadine Dorries harbours in her gripe-infested mind). The Moral Maze is still going as far as I can tell, just like Buerk himself, who I see is 75 (and surely overdue his “K” by now). Mind you, I now think of Buerk as a front man advertising gold coins such as historic one eighth sovereigns on daytime telly, so I was pleased to be reminded he’s still got work commensurate with his talents.

It’s just that he thinks that the show might be “less abrasive” than it used to be. He’s got a point there, but I don’t think it’s got much to do with what we nowadays call “wokery”, what we used to call “political correctness” and what is in reality just good manners. Buerk asks aloud if there are now things that are “off limits”, and of course there are, but there always were.

Once upon a time, it would have been unthinkable for a BBC show to question the monarchy, for example, or concede that homosexuality is “normal”. It’s good those taboos have gone, and now we have our own ones. That’s what all societies do; they have their norms and bounds and their Overton windows, and that’s quite normal.

The real problem with The Moral Maze is that it’s a bit woolly, and just another discussion programme, and the presenters aren’t all that spikey and provocative. And that’s mainly because Dr David Starkey hasn’t been one of the panellists since I can’t remember when, maybe when John Major was still prime minister. I miss him.

Starkey was a wonderful panellist – the best – because he brought such an acerbic edge to the show, spicing up the usual amorphous philosophical soup with balls-out personal attacks. Whether they were discussing gun control in America, abortion, race or the Middle East, topics it seems they never stray far from on The Moral Maze, he’d be there with his libertarianism and his historical insights, but at some point he’d reliably round on some liberal academic, boss of a quango or head of a humanitarian charity. Then he’d play the man, or woman, or gender fluid victim, rather than the ball and come up with something like: “Isn’t the truth of the matter that you’re just a stupid little bureaucrat who can’t get a proper job and you make up for your manifest ignorance by bossing the rest of us around like a pound shop Pol Pot?”

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The mark of a successful Starkey interjection was the few seconds’ stunned silence, akin to concussion, as the guest digested the scorn, before Buerk slid in with some thanks for their valuable contribution, and the “witness” headed for the green room, which acted as a sort of field hospital for people Starkey didn’t like much. After the programme it was usually more packed than a Covid ward.

David Starkey says losing his honorary university titles was an act of ‘crass vengeance’

So I’d bring back Starkey, but I’d make sure that these days he knew that causing offence for the sake of it is fine, like telling people they’re intellectual pygmies or selfish or ignorant or socialist bigots, but that he should avoid stuff that people find racist and the rest of it, because the BBC is indeed “woke” in the sense of being an anti-racist institution and if he wants to say that sort of stuff (or be interpreted as such) then he can do so elsewhere.

Seems fair enough? The last time I saw Starkey on the telly he was reduced to doing a turn on GB News with Colin Brazier, and, true to form, he set out to shock his host and audience, I assume, by declaring “I’m a gay, a poof”, which I think is probably OK (maybe?). He’s still got it, you see, and according to his own account he knows that some of the things he’s said in recent years were plain wrong and he’s apologised for them. It’d be a good subject, in fact, for The Moral Maze: is Dr David Starkey compatible with a civilised society? I’d tune in for that.

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