It is perhaps the latest radio series in which she is a host, not a participant, that is most innovative and a real highlight of her long journalistic career. Across the Red Line on Radio 4 sets 45 minutes aside for one topic to be discussed in huge depth. Occasionally linked to an area of public policy dominating the news, the space provides a chance for big ideas to be combatted with time.
Except combated is perhaps the wrong verb. For this series rests on a different premise. Whether it’s a discussion on the Today programme, LBC phone-in or episode of Question Time, debates are usually based around conflict and disagreement. Opponents are competing against one another to try and triumph the credibility of one another’s arguments.
In Across the Red Line, things have changed. The title alone would indicate that. Politics today, especially due to social media, is viewed to have been more polarised than ever. Individuals set red lines about what they are willing to tolerate. Notions of pragmatism and tolerance have become dirty words, suggesting those who recognise the value of such attributes hold no principles at all.
This radio programme is one built around good faith. Two people are put together in a room, each with an opposing opinion on a matter, and are allowed to argue their case. What is new about this, you might think? The first aspect is time. Even on Question Time, which lasts for an hour, the multitude of questions, panellists and audience members means it’s impossible to dig deeper into an issue. On the Today programme especially, the presenter is always making sure the running order is kept to.
Here, 45 minutes is allowed to be used in its full. The topics themselves are undeniably interesting. Is Assisted Dying Morally Wrong? Is Equality a Good Thing in itself? Does Profit corrupt? There are many philosophical strands every one of these questions could be taken in. Yet the programme never becomes inaccessible to the standard Radio 4 listener. While the mention of political philosophers could increase the academic coherent of the conversation, its audience range would invariably diminish.
The programme is unafraid about getting people who couldn’t have more different perspectives. Douglas Murray and Nesrine Malik are unlikely to hold similarities on anything, let alone the specific topic of identity politics. Claire Fox and David Gauke were on different sides of the Brexit argument and so their disagreement on risk was also unsurprising. Tuning in, the listener might think rage is going to define what unfolds. The opposite couldn’t be more true.
Every person is allowed to express why they hold their perspective. Matthew Parris’ aversion towards referenda came, for example, from his fear of crowds and what they could incite. Sarah Ditum believed individualism couldn’t be conceived as a proper policy area because humans were defined by their communities. Individuals are given the opportunity to express where they come from and what drives their argument for a significant length of time.
The show isn’t simply Anne and the two guests. Conflict resolution specialist Gabrielle Rifkind often features, aiming to prevent the arguments descending into bad faith accusations that blight so many platforms for mainstream debate. This occurs right from the off, with individuals having time to make their remarks before the differences are expressed.
The structure of the debate is key alongside the argument under question. At points, Gabrielle encourages the panellists to ask one another about their backgrounds and the certain factors that have driven them to take this perspective. The person who asked the question then relays what they’ve heard to the person itself. Often, the panellists have to be encouraged to speak directly to one another instead of through the mediator of the presenters.
The depth and quality of discussions is therefore invariably more enriching. Instead of simply learning someone’s title, we learn about their past and the personal and social experiences that have driven a particular response. Fraser Nelson becomes someone who is not just editor of the Spectator but holds certain motivations when trying to achieve equality of opportunity. James O’Brien is not only an LBC presenter but an individual born and raised to be passionate about journalism and the ideals of ensuring facts triumph all else. Rory Stewart was far more than a former Conservative MP but someone who believed in helping individuals across the world, regardless of background.
Across the Red Line may end with the participants still holding the same viewpoints. Sometimes the political gap between perspectives is simply too large. But, as a programme, it feels almost unique. While interview podcasts are hugely popular, they normally involve one presenter and one guest. With the brilliant Anne McElvoy chairing, calm Gabrielle Rifkind ensuring arguments are made in good faith and two guests, the 45 minutes really provide a time for a wide range of views. More than anything else, Across the Red Line teaches listeners that how we debate is just as important as what we debate.