Wireless: Long March to the Microphone
They were all members of an obscure outpost of the hard Left. Now they’re on The Moral Maze
Radio 4 is so lost in establishment liberalism it does not know how to break out of it. The BBC’s managers accept that they must give a hearing to the currents in public life they habitually ignore. But like a teetotaller on his first binge or a vicar on his first visit to a brothel, they do not experiment cautiously but go wild at the first sniff of a novel experience and hand the airwaves over to the strangest group produced by the Seventies far Left: the Revolutionary Communist Party.
The best way to describe it is as a cult that followed the teachings of its great helmsman, one Frank Furedi. The best way to understand the paranoia of its politics is to add that Furedi spent years working under the assumed name of “Frank Richards” because, like Lenin and Trotsky before him, he wanted a nom de guerre to throw the spies of the imperialist state off his trail.
In the 1990s, the party’s leaders decided to give up on socialism and move into the media. And like good Leninists, the rank and file obeyed their superiors’ orders and abandoned their previous convictions on demand. The Moral Maze is now its base at the BBC and is on the radio as I write. Claire Fox of the Institute of Ideas, which the party’s cadres founded when they decided that Trotsky was wrong after all, is on the panel and one of the witnesses is a contributor to Spiked, the institute’s online journal. When I last appeared on the programme, one of the witnesses was Brendan O’Neill, the editor of Spiked, and half the panel — the author Kenan Malik and James Panton, an Oxford academic — were Spiked regulars. I waited for Michael Buerk, the presenter, to tell listeners that a fair proportion of his guests came from this cosy coterie. He never did.
Nor do his colleagues. If you come across a new voice on a Radio 4 talk show, talking with loudmouthed conviction, the odds are that he or she will be from the RCP/Institute of Ideas. Indeed, if you want to become a talking head on Radio 4, the best advice I can give you is to join the RCP crowd.
As an aspiring pundit you will need to subscribe to the following notions: that the British mollycoddle their children and foolishly protect them from the rough and tumble of childhood with anti-bullying campaigns; that human rights are a joke and humanitarian intervention a crime; that we live in a therapeutic culture, under whose yoke the State tells us how to live, love and grieve; that social workers are agents of oppression; that psychiatrists aren’t much better; and that environmentalism is a reactionary attempt to stop human progress.
I find the RCP’s denunciations of humanitarianism thoughtless and its condemnations of teachers’ campaigns against the bullying of children repellent. Furedi and O’Neill do not strike me as men who could look after themselves in a fight. If a couple of guys were to ask them to step outside, I doubt if they would describe the violence they suffered as character building and condemn police attempts to prosecute their assailants as political correctness gone mad.
However, in fairness, I must accept that not everything the faction says is pernicious and that the oddest milieus can nurture good writers. Although most of its thinkers are doctrinaire and shallow, the RCP/Institute of Ideas deserves credit for producing an intellectual of stature in Kenan Malik, whose description of the rise of Islamist censorship in his book From Fatwa to Jihad (Atlantic, 2009) took some guts to write. Moreover, I understand that conservative readers will be pleased that the former RCP now offers them what they used to find in the Tory press or hear from the lips of saloon-bar philosophers at the 19th hole.
The switch in ideology is not as surprising as they might think. The RCP was the most ultra of ultra-Left groups, filled with the type of militant who refused to give money to beggars for fear that their charity would delay the inevitable crisis in capitalism. Once the party gave up on Marxism in the 1990s, its critique of “reformist” attempts to, say, protect the National Health Service or restrain multinationals sounded very like the type of conservatism that wants to cut the welfare state to the bone and let big business have free reign.
But to raise the peculiar parallels between Trotskyists and Tories is to go into a deservedly obscure chapter of British ideological history that few readers will care about. Beyond alerting listeners to Radio 4’s failure to tell them that its programmes are packed with representatives of a weird sect, why bother with the BBC’s infatuation with the RCP when there are more pressing causes to worry about?
Two reasons occur to me, one political and one journalistic. Politically, it shows how Radio 4 still believes that the far Left is somehow morally superior to the far Right. The BBC’s favourite former Trotskyites have not abandoned totalitarianism. Just as neo-Nazis deny the Holocaust and say that liars faked the evidence of the Auschwitz gas chambers, so the RCP denied the evidence of the Serbian massacres in Bosnia and maintained that lying journalists faked the pictures of Bosnian Muslims in concentration camps. From Iran to Zimbabwe, the RCP, or whatever it is calling itself this week, is rarely at the forefront of campaigns against tyranny. My guess is that the BBC loves the RCP: not because Radio 4 is filled with admirers of totalitarianism, but because it is filled with the promoters of sensationalism.
Eventually, all pundits or academics in the public eye learn this the hard way when they receive a call from a researcher for Radio 4 asking them to come on air. They are briefly flattered. But then the researcher insists that they entertain the audience by reducing their position to absurdity and adopting the most extreme caricature of their argument imaginable. If they are not prepared to play the game, the researcher will hang up and they will realise that the five words Radio 4 hate most are “It’s more complicated than that”.
They never hear them from the RCP. It understands the BBC and gives it the contrarianism it craves. If everyone says social workers ought to protect the vulnerable from menaces, the RCP will say social workers are the real menace. If everyone says the Serbs committed atrocities in Bosnia, the RCP will say they did not. If everyone says the world is round, the RCP will say it’s flat.
I do not know who emerges with less credit from the staged political debates that follow: the BBC producers who demand idiotic posturing or the supposed intellectuals who go along with them.