Posted by: John Colby | Wednesday February 10 2010

Disappointment in The Moral Maze

I listened to The Moral Maze on Radio 4 whilst driving home tonight. The subject concerned the right of prisoners to vote, currently denied to them, but the European Court of Human Rights insisted five years ago that voting rights should be granted. The rights and wrongs of the argument I am unsure about – I am not convinced either way.

But what I sure of is the bad treatment  of the first witness. Some members of the panel continually interrupted and refused to let him finish a sentence. (no pun intended as it was Bobby Cummines, a reformed offender who is Chief Executive of UNLOCK, the National Association of Reformed Offenders) Michael Buerk had to restrain the panel to allow him to get a point over. The other witnesses were, I feel, accorded much more respect while they were speaking.

Now it’s not often that I’ll express indignation in this fashion, but can only wonder if it was Mr Cummines vernacular accent or what he once was (his CV says “Criminal and Prisoner, 1966-1988′)  that caused them not to listen to what he was saying. Indeed he is much more articulate, giving superbly reasoned arguments,  than many other witnesses (and many panel members) I have heard on this programme. I rather feel that the some of the panel heard how he sounded rather than listened to what he was saying. Whether this treatment was influenced by his accent, what he once was or some other reason I do not know. When he was allowed to speak he was well worth listening to.

If The Moral Maze wants still to be thought of as a proper debating platform as befits its title (and I do listen regularly as I’m usually driving home when it is being broadcast) then the panel members must give all witnesses the same opportunity to speak. As part of our professional development curriculum at our university we do emphasise ‘listening skills’ as part of the essential professional skillset. If I were to mark tonight’s broadcast on what we attempt to teach I would have been sorely stretched to award a pass.



  1. Hi John

    Perhaps, I can convert you? There is nothing to debate on whether prisoners should have the vote because the pros are for it and the cons are for it!

    I feel put out that the BBC did not ask me to attend as a witness given that it was my case Hirst v UK(No2) before the ECtHR and the subject for discussion on the Moral Maze. I am an expert witness, whereas Bobby only knows a bit about it because he specialises in ex-offenders issues.

    I really thought it would be challenging and interesting. Michael Buerk interviewed me for The Choice, and I have no complaints about him. But, the producer or producers of the show should be shot at dawn. Lesson one, research the subject. Not long ago the UKIP spokesman in Brussels phoned me, and when I asked why, he said “I thought I would speak to the one man who knows what he is talking about on the case”.

    I remember a similar experience in the High Court, pitted against 3 QCs and 3 juniors and a judge all talking posh, and all I had was a deep Yorkshire accent in comparison. However, its the points that count and I firmly shoved their silver spoons down their gobs.

    I spoke to Bobby afterwards, and he said he felt that he was constrained by the 8 minutes time allowed. As you say, others were chipping into his allotted time frame. I am not the greatest public speaker, lacking what it takes, but given the breathing space I can get my points across in my own way. And I could hear that Bobby was getting there when he is interupted and thrown off track. I really felt for him.

    The idiotic Tory QC clearly had not read my judgment otherwise he would have known that the Court rejected the vote as a privilege, firmly stating that voting is a human right. I do not have any formal legal qualification, and yet I created a legal and political problem which the government has been unable to solve in over 5 years.

    When I gave up violence and studied the law, the prison authorities stated that they feared me more as a law-abiding citizen than as a law breaker. They can control violence with force, but when I started studying the law there was no prison law so I developed it in my own school of thought Prison Law Inside Out. Maybe one day a university will get around to giving me a honorary degree in prison law. Having created the field I could plant seeds, or mines for that matter and watch as they blew up in the government lawyers faces! Am I a legal terrorist?

    What this subject really needs is a Question Time special and/or Newsnight investigation and give it a serious airing. I am willing to go up against anybody and answer any question with a proper answer.

  2. This is not an argument about the rights and wrongs of the debate, but about the treatment meted out to a witness. I am in full agreement with the previous comment that it needs an in depth investigation such as Question Time/Newsnight/Panorama but what we were presented with last night was neither in depth nor very fair.

    I remain unconvinced by either argument*, but we much remember that we’re dealing with people. That’s what seems to have been forgotten.

    * If the arguments had been just that without the put downs on the programme then I have be less unsure.

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