BBC R4’s ‘Moral Maze’: the on-air correction and the one that wasn’t made

The March 23rd edition of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Moral Maze’ was entitled “Brussels Bombing” and the topic under discussion the day after the terror attacks in Belgium was liberty versus security.Moral Maze 23 3

One of the ‘witnesses’ – Mike Harris – claimed that even during World War Two, the British people did not have to carry identity cards.  

“During the Second World War, Winston Churchill did not allow ID cards in this country ‘cos he said we will not water down our essential commitment to liberty.”

That statement is of course inaccurate (British citizens were required to carry identity cards from September 1939 until February 1952) and – in accordance with BBC editorial guidelines concerning factual errors – later on in the programme presenter Michael Buerk made sure to correct the misleading impression given to audiences by the broadcast of that claim.  

An additional ‘witness’ on the programme was Inayat Bunglawala who, interestingly, also appeared on a previous edition of Moral Maze just after the terror attacks in Paris last November. In among his predictable statements, at 30:50 Bunglawala came out with the following:

“I’m sure you would never…ahm…say that because Israel carries out acts of mass murder against Palestinians and is engaged in the theft of their land that we should somehow look for a problem of genocidal Judaism.” [emphasis added]

Remarkably, Michael Buerk did not find it necessary to correct the misleading impression given to listeners by the broadcast of that claim. 

BBC R4’s ‘Moral Maze’ sidesteps the moral issues behind the BDS campaign

The BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Moral Maze’ is billed as providing audiences with the opportunity to hear “[c]ombative, provocative and engaging live debate examining the moral issues behind one of the week’s news stories”. The February 20th edition of the show was titled “Banning Boycotts” and part of its synopsis explains the timing of this particular debate.Moral Maze 20 2

“Now the government is planning a law to make it illegal for local councils, public bodies and even some university student unions to carry out boycotts. Under the plan all publicly funded institutions will lose the freedom to refuse to buy goods and services as part of a political campaign.”

The programme (available here) is well worth listening to in full and some of its notable aspects relate to both practical and philosophical issues.

One of the pro-boycott ‘witnesses’ invited to the programme was John Hilary – introduced as “the executive director of ‘War on Want’ which has been leading the campaign against this ban”. Listeners were not told, however, that ‘War on Want‘ is also a principal player in the BDS campaign and its anti-Israel agenda was – as usual – not clarified despite the requirement to do so under BBC editorial guidelines on impartiality.

Hilary was allowed to make the inaccurate and misleading claim that the BDS campaign began in 2005 as the result of a call from “Palestinian civil society” and listeners were not informed of the actual roots of the campaign in the ‘Durban Strategy’ conceived in 2001. Together with the second pro-boycott ‘witness’ – Rob Harrison of ‘Ethical Consumer’ magazine – Hilary was not challenged on the inaccurate claim that the boycott campaign against Israel relates solely to what he termed “illegal settlements” and what Harrison called “stuff going on in the occupied territories”.

John Hilary, 'War on Want' (photo: Twitter)

John Hilary, ‘War on Want’ (photo: Twitter)

But the most notable feature of this programme is to be found in the discrepancy between the across the board agreement amongst its participants that boycotting is a “tactic” – i.e. a means to an end – and the reluctance to discuss the true nature of that end and the “moral issues” arising from it.

‘Witness’ Daniel Johnson of Standpoint magazine made an attempt (from 18:03) to raise an issue rarely – if ever – addressed in BBC programmes or reports: the real end-game of the anti-Israel BDS campaign.

“The BDS movement does not accept Israel as a Jewish state. It wants to destroy that state.”

Panel member Matthew Taylor quickly interrupted:

“But…it….we’re not discussing the specifics…the specificities of that; we’re talking about boycotts in general.”

Towards the end of the programme – at around 35:40 – panelist Melanie Phillips also tried to highlight the same issue but was similarly interrupted by presenter Michael Buerk.

MP: “…as Daniel Johnson was getting at, it’s to do with the bullying nature of this. And why is it bullying? It is because it is based on a singular unfairness and injustice. It is based on the telling of lies. […] But on this case you have blood libels and incitement which are not to do with enjoining justice…

MB: “Melanie….that…”

MP: “…but with destroying a country. That’s what Daniel Johnson was saying and that’s why it is bullying.”

MB: “Yeah but this programme is not specifically about that.”

As has been documented too many times on these pages the BBC has consistently avoided telling its audiences what the BDS campaign it so often showcases really seeks to achieve. In this programme listeners actually had a rare opportunity to hear from informed contributors what that campaign’s tactics are aimed at bringing about: surely an important piece of information for members of the BBC’s funding public trying to make up their own minds as to whether they are in favour of the tactic of boycotts or not and what they think about the UK government’s new rulings.

Instead, audiences heard a discussion of the “moral issues” relating to the symptom and the cowardly sidestepping of the “moral issues” of the far more important topic which the BBC continues to do its level best to avoid.  

Related Articles:

BBC coverage of UK government’s action against BDS fails to fully inform

BBC Radio 4’s ‘Moral Maze’ does ISIS, ‘Zionist terrorists’ and ‘demonised’ Hamas

The October 15th edition of the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Moral Maze’ – repeated on October 18th and available here – was titled “Talking to Terrorists”. The synopsis on the programme’s web page reads as follows:Moral Maze

“Former US vice president Dick Cheney famously said “we don’t negotiate with evil – we defeat it.” Unfortunately history is not on his side. It seems that almost every time a new terrorist group comes along and we declare we’ll never negotiate with them, we end up doing just that. The IRA, the PLO, Taliban, Hamas to name a few – we’ve eventually talked to them all. So why not talk to ISIS? Policymakers understandably respond with righteous anger and determination after a horrible event. Negotiations can give legitimacy to terrorists and their methods and set a dangerous precedent. Yet terrorists are rarely, if ever, defeated by military means alone. ISIS may seem to be well beyond the pale at the moment, but will that always be the case? And how do we make that judgement? A former director of the Israeli security agency Shin Bet has said he’d advocate talking to anyone – even the Iranians. That way, he said “we discover they don’t eat glass and they that we don’t drink petrol.” Are people’s lives being sacrificed as conflicts drag on because we refuse to talk to preserve our moral purity? Or do we have to take a stand between right and wrong, good and evil when it comes to a group such as ISIS? Should we – can we – balance the forces of pragmatism and principle when it comes to the prospect of talking to terrorists?”

Most of the programme focused on ISIS which interestingly was described by presenter Michael Buerk as follows in his introduction:

“They’re painted with some reason as fanatics, operating on the border line between Salafist extremism and religious insanity – beyond the reach of reason.” [emphasis added]

Contrary to the impression perhaps received by readers of the synopsis there was actually very little content relating to Israel, with the exception being a couple of ‘gems’ from Michael Portillo.

“So you wouldn’t say then that the terrible things they’ve [ISIS] done – Michael Buerk listed some of them at the beginning – you wouldn’t say that that uniquely sets them apart, let’s say from Zionist terrorists…eh….who formed the State of Israel, Hamas with whom we want Israel now to speak, the Taliban with whom we have all spoken – so it doesn’t set them apart?”

“But might it also be an interesting paradox that as we come under such pressure from Islamic State that we’ll want to settle whatever we can in the region, so actually we’ll probably be pressuring Israelis to talk to the formerly demonised Hamas?” [emphasis added]

What is interesting about this programme is the glimpse it gives those of us in the Middle East into the kind of conversations among intellectuals and policy shapers in the West. Especially notable was the notion proposed by two participants that ISIS fighters are essentially frustrated Sunnis expressing their discontent with a Shia-run Iraqi government and that if that was sorted out, the ISIS balloon might be deflated.

Another remarkable point was the following argument from Michael Portillo:

“I’m amazed that in this whole discussion more weight has not been given to the impact over the last ten years or so [….] of Western violence. Now that is not to say that there is moral equivalence, but it is to say that one of the reasons why I think people are being very violent in these countries is that so much violence has happened in these countries. The alternative to violence is talk.”

As is so often the case, the really interesting aspect of this programme was what was not discussed and notably the topics of the age-old Shia-Sunni conflict and political Islam were not brought into the discussion at all.

Dr Jonathan Spyer recently wrote the following:

“Because the nature of this struggle is not widely grasped in the West, policy appears somewhat rudderless. This is reflected in the current discussion regarding the response to the Islamic State.

First, Assad was the enemy. This was made clear enough not only by his support for Hezbollah and attempts to nuclearize, but also by his unspeakable brutality and use of chemical weapons against his own citizens.

Then, when the brutality of some of the rebels became apparent, Western public interest in supporting the rebels receded. Soon the I.S. emerged as the new bogeyman. Declarations for its destruction became de rigueur, though it is far from clear how this is going to be carried out—and a de facto alliance with Iran and its clients, at least in Iraq, has emerged. This was seen in the expulsion of the I.S. from the town of Amerli, a pivotal moment in the major setbacks faced by the organization in recent days. In that town, Shi’ite militias were backed by American air power—to telling effect against the Sunni jihadis.

But is it really coherent policy to be backing murderous Shi’ite sectarians against murderous Sunni ones? It is not. Of course, when the West backs the Sunni rebels in Syria, the precise opposite is happening. Weaponry donated to “moderate” rebels then inevitably turns up in the hands of Sunni jihadis, who do most of the fighting associated with the Syrian “rebellion.” The result is that in Iraq the U.S. is helping one side of the Sunni-Shia war, and in Syria it’s helping the other side.

Only when it is understood that the West cannot partner with either version of political Islam does it become possible to formulate a coherent policy toward the Sunni jihadi forces, on the one hand, and toward the Iran-led bloc, on the other.”

Dr Spyer’s article – which, like this BBC programme, gives little cause for optimism that the West will come out of its Middle East ‘moral maze’ anytime soon – can be read here




The BBC’s muddy ‘Moral Maze’

Some discussions on the subject of the Arab-Israeli conflict actually reveal more about the speakers and the climate of the society in  which they function than about the subject itself. The latest edition of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Moral Maze’ on the subject of “Morality and Ethics in the Gaza Conflict” (available here or here) is one of them.

Why is the subject matter never referred to as “the Southern Israel Conflict”, by the way? After all, the real bottom line is the refusal by Hamas to accept the presence of Israelis in the region at all, as they are not shy to admit.

Nevertheless, in this programme you can hear one British academic describe Israel’s taking of action against rocket attacks on civilians as “revenge” and a “base form of behaviour” which “provokes the enemy”. He also gets rocket statistics drastically wrong, saying that 300 missiles were fired during Operation Pillar of Cloud when the total number was actually 1,506. 

You can also hear another British academic argue that “Zionism has failed” and “there is no future for Israel”, whilst choosing to use the politically loaded term “Bantustans” (designed to equate Israel with the South African apartheid regime) and to claim that Israelis “live in terror of their Palestinian minority” – meaning Israeli Arabs.

Another contributor declares a belief that “Israel should behave with moral generosity”, whilst it is admitted that the lack of democracy in Gaza means “I don’t expect so much from Hamas”. That seems like a win-win situation for repressive dictators everywhere. 

And of course the usual irrelevant Northern Ireland analogies are brought up, as happens so frequently when British contributors are involved.

Thankfully, some of the other contributions were better, but the one question I have for the BBC’s distinguished cadre of moral debaters is this: which country are they going to discuss next in terms of its “right to exist” and potential dismantling?

Upcoming on BBC Radio 4: ‘Moral Maze’ on Gaza

Here is a programme of which readers might like prior notice.

Described on its webpage as “combative, provocative and engaging live debate examining the moral issues behind one of the week’s news and engaging live debate examining the moral issues behind one of the week’s news stories”, this week’s edition of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Moral Maze’ – to be broadcast on Wednesday, November 21st at 20:00 GMT – will relate to the subject of what it describes as “the current conflict in Gaza” (apparently not having noticed that there is also conflict going on over the border, with 3.5 million Israelis under attack from over a thousand military-grade missiles in the past week alone).

The blurb reads:

“Both sides in the current conflict in Gaza have been claiming the moral high ground. To the Israelis it’s an issue of self-defence and they’re trying to avoid casualties. To Hamas it’s about responding to the oppression and aggression of a much more powerful neighbour. The world looks on, counting the bodies and is almost inevitably drawn to the graphic simplicities of competing victimhood. The Palestinians win that hands down, but, terrible though it is, there’s more to morality than suffering. What if, as the Israeli writer Amos Oz says, they’re both right? Should we substitute pragmatism for morality? Stop trying to weigh up competing moral claims in the interests of some sort of solution. Or is giving up the idea of right and wrong, relativism of the worst kind, that could lead to a different kind of moral tragedy? Combative, provocative and engaging debate chaired by Michael Buerk with Michael Portillo, Anne McElvoy, Matthew Taylor and Claire Fox”