Television

BBC: DG concerned about pressure from religious groups

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MUMBAI: The row over the BBC's broadcast of Jerry Springer - The Opera shows no sign of abating. In a lecture given in London titled Angels and Emails BBC DG Mark Thompson expresed concern over the fact that the BBC and other cultural institutions in the UK seemed to be caving in far more than in the past to pressure and complaints from various religious lobbies.

He says, "I should say something which may appear obvious but which is sometimes forgotten. Our advice would always be: if you believe you may be offended by something on BBC television, radio or online, don't watch or listen to it – turn it off or turn over." He warned that lobbying from some Christian organisations against the broadcast of the Jerry Springer special was a threat to freedom of speech. He said, " As you can imagine, one of the many blessings which the Jerry Springer affair brought me was a rich postbag. Some of the letters were thoughtful, some just plain angry. Former heads of religious programmes at the BBC always claim that the most apoplectic letters – the you-should-be-strung-up-right-now-you-bastard-son-of-Satan letters – invariably sign off with phrases like 'with all God's blessings' or 'yours in Christ'. Sadly, I didn't get one of those, but there was the odd surprise."

Thompson noted that one of the BBC's radio producers, Anthony Pitts, resigned over our decision to show Springer. "Before he did so, he said to me sadly: 'this is such an opportunity, such a wasted opportunity, to turn back the tide'. Now there will be many who sympathise with that notion of turning back the tide. But in truth people detect many different tides: a tide towards ever greater permissiveness; a tide towards censorship; a tide of favouritism towards multiculturalism and against Christian belief; a tide of majority intolerance towards minorities. It feels like a world of eddies and confused under-currents that the BBC might hope to reverse."

Thompson conceeded that the Jerry Springer Opera is a pungent, sometimes genuinely shocking work. However it was widely critically acclaimed on stage. "Although it was seen by many hundreds of thousands of people and presumably by many tens of thousands of Christians, there were few if any complaints either about the show in general or about blasphemy in particular. There were no public protests." He maintained that the decision to air Springer was both right and important because of a responsibility the corporation has of showcasing the widest range of ideas. "I believe that this openness, along with the wider openness of our whole society, is under threat."

Thompson went on to state that the Editorial Policy Department is an independent unit in the BBC which is there to offer objective advice to editorial decision-makers – including him as editor-in-chief – and to develop the guidelines which all BBC commissioners and programme-makers must follow. "In a case like Springer, one of the questions we consider is: would this transmission be lawful? Does it, for instance, contravene the law on blasphemy? In the event we concluded that a prosecution under the law of blasphemous libel was highly unlikely to succeed.

"But of course a programme can be lawful and still unsuitable for transmission: because, for instance, of its possible impact on children; or because of its power to shock or offend viewers who came upon it unawares. In fact, it was always intended that Jerry Springer should be broadcast long after the watershed, a boundary of taste which we try to police stringently, and that it would not only have extensive verbal and visual warnings in front of it. It would be preceded by a hour's worth of documentary background." The BBC took the decision to air the special on BBC Two rather than on the mass-audience channel BBC One. "In other words, this was to be presented to the public as a serious piece of musical theatre, part of BBC Two's broader commitment to arts, carefully contextualised and with very clear warnings to prepare the audience for what to expect.

Thompson argues that the show fitted very clearly into BBC Two's mission to bring outstanding opera and musical theatre to the screen. The aim was that people who perhaps couldn't get to see it in the theatre could nonetheless enjoy it. The programme could be labelled and contextualised in order that those who, for whatever reason, didn't wish to see it could steer well clear or press the off button.

Another show that generated controversy was Popetown. Thompson says that the corporation decided that the disbenefits of broadcast outweighed the benefits. "So, despite having spent more than two million pounds on it, we withdrew it."

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