Wednesday 23 July 2014

The Moral Maze

Tonight's The Moral Maze was quite something. 

To do justice to the thoughts it provoked would demand a post that took longer to read than it actually took to listen to the programme (and no one wants that), so I will simply sketch my initial impressions of it.

The panel contained two strongly pro-Israeli speakers, namely Melanie Phillips and Jill Kirby (making her debut), and one strongly pro-Palestinian speaker, Giles Fraser. The final speaker, Matthew Taylor, was happier to sit on the fence but dangled his feet on the Palestinian side.

The 'witnesses' were Colonel Richard Kemp and Dr Hugo Slim on the Israeli side, and Mehdi Hasan and Ted Honderich on the Palestinian side. 

Michael Buerk gave a characteristically fine introduction (firm but fair). 

Then came the first witness, Mehdi Hasan. 

Mehdi (characteristically) was very canny in making repeated denunciations of Hamas, saying that they too had committed war crimes. Of course, that concession allowed him to repeatedly make his main point - that Israel is committing war crimes and that Israel is worse than Hamas because of its superior military strength and because it is 'the occupier'. 

His argument didn't convince me but I can well imagine, unfortunately, that his fluency might have struck home with many a Radio 4 listener. 

Melanie's repeated attempts to talk him down, and both her and Jill's attempts to get him to condone Hamas rather misfired. He was perfectly happy to condemn Hamas (#Taqiyya?) in order to make his condemnation of Israel tell, thus (in the process) somewhat taking the wind out of their sails.

Next came Colonel Richard Kemp. 

He was very persuasive, making Israel's case with considerable reasonableness (as opposed to Mehdi's excitability). I suspect (and hope) that Radio 4 listeners will have responded well to his arguments. 

Both Matthew Taylor and Giles Fraser gave him space to make his arguments and seemed rather hard-placed to argue with them. Giles, characteristically, was passionate but also seemed somewhat disarmed by Col. Kemp's quietly-made points. It was a clear win for Col. Kemp.

Then came Ted Honderich. 

Prof. Honderich is a philosopher. [I own an encyclopedia of philosophy edited by him]. He sought to make a philosophical case in defence of Hamas. Yes, really.

I suspect (like me) that most Radio 4 listeners will have failed to make much sense of his arguments. All I took from his contribution is that he thinks Hamas is good and that Israel is bad, and that he thinks that Hamas is justified in deliberately seeking to kill Israeli civilians. Philosophically-speaking.

I almost wish that Michael Buerk hadn't cut him off so curtly from making his initial argument as I suspect that Radio 4 listeners would have been even more put off by the result. (Michael clearly didn't like Ted Honderich). Partly as a result, Prof. Honderich made very little headway here. 

His remarkable (and reprehensible) appearance was dominated by his spiteful encounter with Melanie Phillips. Insults flew in both directions. 

Finally came Dr Hugo Slim, who put the case for Israel well, but who was also willing to give his hands a good wringing in the process. Giles Fraser tried to wax passionate against him but seemed to find him too likable (too liberal) to get into a proper fistfight with, and Matthew Taylor appeared to reach a meeting of minds with him. 

The final panel discussion was lively. Giles Fraser came out (extraordinarily) as being sympathetic to Ted Honderich's pro-Hamas points (well, he is a Guardian editorial writer these days). Melanie Phillips tried to talk him down (and everyone else - until Jill Kirby made a good, pro-Israel point). Jill Kirby floundered somewhat, though she made some good points (first day nerves?). Michael Buerk had a dig at Giles for seeming to back up Prof. Honderich, and Matthew Taylor sat on the fence. 

All in all, a fiercely balanced programme. 

I did note that some people on Twitter denounced it as biased, though I couldn't work out in what direction they meant (and was deeply unwilling to check their Twitter feeds).


  1. In September 2006, Honderich presented a particularly nasty documentary on Channel 5 on primetime television in which he slandered Israel, justified terrorism against its citizens and attacked the US for backing the Jewish state. At the end, Honderich stated: “We must engage in mass civil disobedience.It can work. Bring down the real friend of terror.”

    The British Home Office would not deal with this incitement and redirected the complaint to the police, who rejected it. The following January, the British media watchdog OFCOM said: “We judged that Professor Honderich’s closing statement was meant in a moral sense and not intended to be taken literally.”

  2. The programme was actually tons better than I was expecting.

    But I think Melanie Phillips missed a vital debating point. Hasan kept banging on about 48 years of occupation, but Ms P could have pointed out that there were some 20 years of occupation before that (Egypt in Gaza, and Jordan in the West Bank), and there were no terrorist outrages against either country in those years.

    Hasan also talked about Israel retreating to its 1967 borders, and here again, in the years UP to 1967 there were several wars of annihalation against Israel, and a steady stream of attacks from neighbouring countries.

    Why don't Hasan and his chums come clean and say they fucking hate Israel and just want it off the map?

  3. Anonymous is right.

  4. Hasan is on record stating (in the New Statesman) that he does not support two states, which is actually a polite way of saying Israel has no right to exist.

  5. Melanie Phillips prevents open discussion by screeching over the opposition. She makes the programme unlistenable and until the BBC takes her off I'm not tuning in again. A dreadful person with poisonous views.

    1. Nice sign-off!
      It’s honest of you to admit that you have poisonous views; such candidness indicates you might not be such a dreadful a person after all. Well done!

  6. Before 1967 they were being occupied by Egypt and Jordan.

    How come there no terrorist outrages against them?

  7. for you guys who are curious about Ted Honderich position I found the documentary of 2006 it can help you get your head around what Pr. Honderich was trying to say (you probably would have to download the video and the quality is awful)

    1. I made a special effort not to listen to this edition of the MM so that I wouldn’t have to spend hours worrying about it, but there’s a good take on it here, which sounds like just the reaction I would’ve had, had I done so.

      As for Prof Honderich:

      Ted Honderich seemed to be trying to articulate a “principle of humanity”(!) which permits those anointed (by Honderich) as righteous to do anything they wish to those designated as untouchables. If ever there was a Nazi analogy crying out to be made, it’s here. says Paul M. Sounds just about right to me.

    2. is this a comment on the post or a reply to my comment ?

  8. That's how I saw it, too. Great summary.

  9. Melanie put on a sterling performance.
    She truly knows her stuff on this whole topic, and sees it (correctly) as an existential issue...would that Israel had the flowery prose and evil intent of Ted Honderich.
    Honderich conflated Hamas` charter commitment to eliminate the Jews with the "right-wing drivel" of the daily Mail that Melanie once used to write for.
    True ad hominem slurry worthy of a Freisler.
    I imagine the chattering classes will be trying to get Mel banned for not being with the likes of Fraser....but Hamas will want Melanies throat bared in Trafalgar Square, and will happily let Fraser and Honderich spout their vacillating-and frankly evil-minds to accounting for the Jewish Question needing a Final Solution.
    God Bless Melanie-and a joy to hear a few cogent Friends of Israel, just this once.

  10. I thought the debate got lost with the guest speakers, especially the pro Palestinians , who boiled it down to a question of whether Israel should exist or not.
    That's not the moral maze. The fact is, it does exist, accept that fact and debate the morailty of the way the war is being fought.

    An excellent idea of a parallel was drawn with the example of the bank robber fleeing with a child as human shield. But the idea wasn't articulated well enough.
    A far better parallel would be person A (Hama's) is threatening person B(Israel).
    A starts throwing stones at B which B can generally avoid and if they do hit, they cause minor injuries, on a very rare occasion, a stone could cause death.
    B produces a large shotgun.
    Shotgun is chosen very specifically due to the way it fires a "spread" of small pellets. Not a single bullet.
    A picks up a child as a human shield. B has the dilemma - do I shoot A but there is a good chance the child (human shield) gets very badly injured. Or do I continue to accept the stones being thrown as the relatively small risks associated.
    The question then centres around : is A enough of a threat to B?
    it is your personal values and views that defines the size of A's stones and what B should be willing to tolerate.

    Should the more powerful one, B , tolerate more due to tu imbalance of power?


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