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No happy ending

22 February 2013

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"BLAMING myself has kept me going. . . It keeps the fire alive." Rarely have I heard a more despairing sign-off to a radio show than Ralph Bulger's at the end of Remembering James Bulger (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week). Twenty years after the murder that challenged the moral assumptions of a nation - most notably the innocence of children - James's father still lacerates himself with guilt.

It is a story that, as the presenter, Winifred Robinson, admitted, holds no comfort. Mr Bulger and his wife, Denise, separated, he turned to drink, and there is no redemptive final act.

Part of the unique moral challenge here is the fact that, in almost any other circumstance, a father would have some sympathy for the ten-year-old killers; but, however ashamed you might be to hate children, "you feel the way you feel." It would have been easier to hate were they grown men - and, as Robinson pointed out, the sentencing would have been more straightforward, too.

The toing and froing over Thompson and Venables's detention only added to the sense of injustice, as Mr Bulger and his family started to feel as if the judicial and political classes were ignoring their opinions.

This was a powerful piece of radio. My only qualm was the way in which Robinson's narratives occasionally overstepped the line between reportage and dramatic reconstruction. Having her tell us that Mr Bulger, after having the death of his son confirmed, splashed water on his face and looked in the mirror adds nothing but a queasy sense of melodrama to an already punishingly emotional story. The texture of Mr Bulger's craggy, care-worn voice was all we needed.

Sometimes, all that is necessary for a compelling programme is a compelling voice. And, in the case of Islam Without God (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), the producer seems to have found him - but too late. Abdul-Rehman Malik's exloration of Muslim identity among those who are, at best, half-heartedly religious was hardly revelatory in its analysis; but I could have heard much more from Moez Masoud, the young Cairo preacher who shares his thoughts with more than two million young Muslims via Twitter and Facebook.

Masoud engages with Muslim agnosticism, encouraging doubters to express their doubts. Living in a post-Mubarak Egypt, he is well placed to see the fractures that are appearing in Islamic beliefs; Islam, he says, must "Wake up and smell the hummus" if it is to adapt to the new order.

One of religion's newest Tweeters is soon to be closing down his apps. It is a mixed blessing to be able to read your obituaries; for In Search of the Real Pope Benedict (Radio 4, Saturday) was a standard obituary job, with superior commentary by Ed Stourton.

It was good to hear from Professor Hans Küng about his early faith in Josef Ratzinger as a radical; and the importance of the 1968 student protests as a turning-point in Ratzinger's thinking was usefully highlighted. But Stourton could not hope to supplement the acres of coverage already expended on this subject, and the only small mercy that this programme afforded was that it displaced a repeat of The Moral Maze.

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