Conflict, morality and flashing red Santa hats

By Jonathan Bartley
December 10, 2009

I am still chuckling about last night's Moral Maze on Radio 4. The programme is a bit of a bear pit. I had been on it a few times before, and have always found far more challenging than encountering Humphries on Today, Paxman on Newsnight or even a live TV audience on BBC's The Big Questions.

It is set up to be highly adversarial - a bit like a court of law but with five prosecutors and no defence. Each week four witnesses are grilled by a panel made up of Michael Buerk in the chair, plus four other regular inquisitors such as Michael Portillo, Melanie Phillips, Claire Fox, and Cliiford Longley. Unlike the rolling news agenda of Newsnight or Today, they all focus their questions on just one subject for the 45 minute programme. They have each done their homework, and have extensive notes in front of them. And whilst one is aiming a question at you, the others are looking for holes in your arguments and new lines of attack. It is five brains against one in a rapid, quick fire exchange, where everyone is trying to catch you out.

This week's programme was the last in this series, and was supposed to be a bit more light-hearted with a Christmas theme. It was to explore the morality of Christmas. What also made it different was that Radio 4 controller Mark Damazer was watching through the studio glass alongside the series producer. Just two weeks ago, I had crossed swords with Mark on the PM programme discussing Thought for the Day.

But I had been thinking in advance that this was a chance to try a fun little experiment. Peacemakers around the world have employed tactics for conflict diffusion involving distraction and often humour. The idea is that in a confrontational situation you can do something out of the ordinary and unexpected which catches people off their guard, and knocks them out of their stride. It can diffuse tense situations. And whilst it relies on an element of surprise, it doesn't have to be spontaneous, and can certainly be pre-planned.

My children had just come back from a Christmas shopping trip with a bright red santa hat, complete with flashing star lights across the front. My plan was that in the serious and adversarial context, as Michael Buerke introduced me live on air, I would pull the hat out of my pocket, pop it on my head, set the lights going and see what happened...

I was aware that it could go horribly wrong, and seeing Mark Damazer sitting there I did have a last minute wobble, wondering whether I might ever be asked to do a Radio 4 interview again. I could look like nothing more than a complete plonker, particularly if my argument collapsed under the grilling. Visual aids of course do not work well on radio - although in this context my target was not the listeners, but the panel. But as the programme progressed it was clear that, despite the programme's Christmassy theme, the other witnesses weren't getting off any more lightly than usual, so it was a prime time to try it

The moment I saw the looks on the faces of the inquisitors I was sure I had made the right decision. Michael Portillo, who I recently interviewed for Third Way and spent time which making an episode of Channel 4's 'Christianity: A History' almost cracked up laughing. Others weren't quite sure what the appropriate response should be, moving between smiles and puzzlement. Michael Burke seemed thrown as he struggled to describe to listeners what was going on. But all the panel had to process what was going on as they thought about their lines of questioning too. During the whole time, their glances moved in rotation from eye to eye contact, to their notes and back up to the hat, again and again.

From my perspective, it definitely seemed disarming, setting a different tone to the previous conflict theme. It caught them unawares, and seemed to create some important space to deal with some of the issues in a more constructive way. You can judge for yourself how you felt it went here: (The red hat goes on around 25 mins).

Keywords:radio 4 | moral maze
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