Kate Chisholm

Prick up your ears

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On paper and on air, there’s nothing to suggest that the Radio 4 series Across the Red Line will have sufficient listening power to draw you in so that once you’ve reached home and need to get out of the car you’ll rush straight in to switch on the radio. The billing in Radio Times describes it simply as a 45-minute show in which the journalist Anne McElvoy ‘invites figures on opposing sides of a political issue to listen to each other’. And that’s exactly what it is. A pair of talking heads tossing about a topical football, guided by McElvoy, who has as her sidekick a conflict resolution expert, Gabrielle Rifkind, brought in to moderate the session if things get lively.

It’s so spare a format — no music, no soundtrack — the accountants must be pleased (the only overhead being the provision of a studio with big mikes, and in this case, a quartet of armchairs). Yet it makes for riveting listening. In the first programme (still available on iPlayer) Hugh Muir, associate editor at the Guardian, was brought together with Charles Moore, of this magazine, to discuss their views on immigration, or more precisely whether it’s OK to be wary of people from other backgrounds. Given their opposing circumstances and allegiances (Muir, the child of immigrant Jamaicans, was educated in east London; Moore is straight out of Eton and Oxbridge), there was not much hope of resolution, you might think. But under McElvoy’s shrewd guidance (and the scrupulous editing of producer Sarah Shebbeare) this was not so much a series of hammer blows by a pair of contestants determined that their voice should be heard loudest and longest as an inquiry into why people think as they do, what makes them wary of each other, is that wariness justified.

As Rifkind said at one point, ‘I don’t think you need a conflict mediator.’

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