The Moral Maze should be dismantled and its minotaurs put out to pasture

Radio 4's Moral Maze has long been a bully pulpit, emphasis on the 'bully'

Do you think the British Empire has been unfairly maligned and was actually a good thing broadly? You may be eligible to be a panellist on The Moral Maze, one of the most malignant presences in the UK media.

First broadcast in 1990, The Moral Maze is now in its 30th year of combining student common room level debating with a streak of Cruella De Vil-style cruelty: “Would it really be cruel for me to make a coat out of these 101 Dalmatians? After all, this is a capitalist system and these lazy pups have no productive value.”

This week’s episode of The Moral Maze carried this title — The Morality of the British Empire — but the underlying question was: “Isn’t it unfair that people who like to say the Empire is good are told that they’re stupid and wrong?” It’s not. The British Empire was a brutally violent exploitation of huge swathes of the world.

Early in the programme, Nesrine Malik, a Guardian columnist, opined: “We know so little about Empire…” The use of ‘we’ there carries a lot more weight than it can hold.

Those, who like me, have read Priyamvada Gopal’s Insurgent Empire, know a fair bit about imperialism — British and otherwise — and it’s not really justifiable to cry ignorance about our shared history. Beyond doing the work, there’s a disgusting fact that The Moral Maze glossed over…

As the British Empire was being dismantled, as a result of liberation movements, the UK government took and hid 1.2 million documents on the Empire in an organised effort called Operation Legacy. UK governments worked hard to change the perception of the British Empire and to hide its crimes.  

The programme continues with the comedian and Spiked mainstay, Andrew Doyle — also the person behind several parodies of left-wing people — railing against ‘collective guilt’, and hammering away at his usual obsessions of cancel culture, racism being overblown etc. etc.

Then the first guest came on. Dr Nadine El-Enany is the Co-Director of the Centre for Research on Race and Law at Birbeck. She was, from the broadcast alone, clearly frustrated with the premise of the show and the tone of Michael Buerk, the main presenter of The Moral Maze, chose to take with her. Buerk refused to allow Dr El-Enany to reject the premise of the question: “Could you just answer it?” 

It continued on with a panel of people putting forward right-wing talking points and effectively refusing to allow the academic to frame her views at all. 

“The Commonwealth is a positive institution isn’t it?”, asked Professor Mona Siddiqui as if the group was created whole cloth out of nowhere, rather than as a PR and control exercise by the Monarchy and government as they saw the control they had through the British Empire fading away.

The programme went on like that; the panel riding their hobby horses round and round in circles, certain that they are smarter than anyone, braver than anyone.

So far, so disgusting. But Dr El-Enany alleges it was even worse off-air:

On the radio, Michael Buerk had sounded audibly frustrated with Dr El-Enany’s points.  The conversation she says she overheard — and I believe her — suggests that frustration was real. Certainly to me as a listener it was apparent that Buerk was more respectful to other guests compared to Dr El-Enany.

The only one of The Moral Maze panellists that I know personally is Tim Stanley, a Telegraph columnist and leader writer, who frequently appears in Radio 4’s religious Thought for the Day slot. Tim has been very kind to me personally in the past, however, in his broadcasting work he plays a tweedy Tory moralist and says and does things that I find reprehensible.

In the backstage conversation that Dr El-Enany quotes, she suggests someone — Stanley or Doyle — commented:

The thing about people like that is that they think it's going to be the only time they're ever going to be on the radio.

They have to get everything out. Come across as desperate.

I have also had this kind of experience, with less vitriol, when I have been asked to be a guest on shows. When I was on The Long View, invited to speak as an expert on technology and the modern world, the presenter Jonathan Freedland treated me as if I was lucky to be there, while he acted starstruck around one of the other guests, who is a respected professor.

I understand why he valued the professor’s contributions more, but I was invited on the show to have something to say. I didn’t elbow my way into the recording with a megaphone and a notecard scrawled with points written in my own blood. I was invited and I was treated like I should be lucky.

On-air, The Moral Maze panellists were able to be dismissive and condescending to Dr El-Enany when she had already left the microphone and could not reply to the things they said not just about her statements but explicitly and implicitly about her standing.

The Moral Maze is an immoral maze.

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It is a maze where some contributors are led to the exit, while others are pointed towards the snake pits. Was it a serious and moral contribution for Tim Stanley to say: “Growing up, my only real memory of Empire, is watching Carry On Up The Khyber.”

The Moral Maze is a show where panellists and the presenter are always coming from the position that they — dispassionate and logical (a lie!) — are better than any ‘angry’ contributor they deal with. Remember, this is a show that frequently includes Anders Brevik’s favourite columnist, Melanie Phillips, as a panellist.

The Moral Maze is a programme that takes issues that involve tremendous pain — both current and historical — and turns them into ‘fun’ little questions for discussion. Of course, people who live these issues do not appreciate this parlour game. And when they reject the premise of the parlour game, Michael Buerk rolls his eyes so hard that you can hear it happening through your radio.

The Moral Maze is a busted flush. It should come to an end. And if you want to call that a demand for cancellation, well, fuck it.