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Moral scandal

26 October 2012

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"IT IS all hideous." With these words a sententious Melanie Phillips signed off on The Moral Maze (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week), having recited a long list of society's ills. So, another ordinary day in the Moral Maze studio, then, with Michael Buerk and the gang - joined, for the first time, by Canon Giles Fraser - picking over the bones of the Jimmy Savile story.

The bones should, Alec Shelbrooke MP says, be dug up and translated to an unmarked grave. How about ploughing salt into the earth around the site as further evidence of society's contempt? The demands for the dismantling of the Savile reputation, and the sense of defilement which adheres to all that bears his name have a symbolic, ritualistic feel: "medieval", Kenan Malik suggested, except that that gives a bad name to the Middle Ages.

You might say it was a little too soon to be addressing the Savile story in a programme where calm reflection and level-headed perspective is required - and you would be right - but this is The Moral Maze we are talking about, and the panel had a great time.

Buerk set the bar of contempt high with his opening remarks: he had never liked Jimmy Savile, but had to admit that his work for charity was laudable. There was much more bluster besides, behind which sat some disquieting facts. Not least of these was the revelation by Jo Summers, a solicitor to two of the main Savile trusts, that, ever since the suggestion had been made that monies in the Savile charities might be redistributed to organisations that help victims of abuse, she and her fellow trustees had been propositioned by numerous such organisations. You cannot blame fund-raisers for keeping an eye out for opportunities, but they clearly do not have a problem with this apparently "tainted" money.

One argument made for the dispersal of money raised by the Savile charities is based on the assertion that he pursued his charitable work only as a means of facilitating the abuse. Antoinette Fox, a victim of abuse by her stepfather, a music teacher, claimed similarly that her stepfather's popular music books should no longer be published under his name, since music teaching was the way in which the abuser "groomed society". It was a telling analogy; but, as Claire Fox pointed out, we are in no position to judge why people do charitable work.

The philosopher Dr Constantine Sandis extended the discussion beyond the immediate scandal. If we were to claim the right to exercise moral disgust at any inanimate object associated with people of whom we disapprove, where would we stop? Do we boycott the Colosseum or the Tower of London?

While it is completely natural for a society to express its disgust, the appropriate response to such disgust lies in the realm of the pragmatic rather than that of moral conviction. Mr Shelbrooke had admitted as much earlier on: he was taking a pragmatic stand, expressing the feelings of his constituents rather than taking a moral stand.

Such is so often the way of The Moral Maze: at the end of 40 minutes of exhaustive manoeuvrings, we discover that the question is not a moral one at all, but one that calls instead for the skills of enlightened pragmatism and good sense.

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