Far be it from me to moralise about the BBC’s week of turmoil.
Or then again....
The Beeb are probably hoping the suspension of Jonathan Ross and resignation of Russell Brand will draw a line under this whole business. I think the BBC’s actions are right, but I hope it’s the start of something, not the end of it.
There have been nudging 35,000 complaints about those phone calls. Just to put this into context, the broadcast of ‘Jerry Springer, the Opera’ on BBC2 attracted 63,000 complaints, but was okayed by the Governors Programmes Complaints Committee. No Trustees meetings, no resignations. And the now notorious Russell Brand show apparently went on to make some fairly off-colour remarks about Jesus (so I’m told by someone who heard the show - all the podcasts have been removed so there’s no way of checking), but without protest from anyone.
Folk of my age grew up with the Young Ones, at the time a groundbreaking comedy sitcom, which was right at the edge of 1980’s boundaries of taste and decency. Scanning the scripts now, what’s notable is the relative absence of swearing and crude sexual references - though it didn’t seem like it at the time. Set alongside the main post-watershed comedy fare now (Little Britain, Armstrong and Miller, Harry & Paul, Mitchell & Webb), it looks very tame indeed.
‘He’s Cleared the Boundary By a Mile!’
There’s no question that the boundaries have shifted. The public has become more tolerant of swearing, sex and violence, in fact some programmes seem to play up to this (e.g a gratuitious beheading in the recent Bonekickers. This attracted 100+ complaints, but was defended by the BBC. Again, it was a Christian group portrayed in a bad light. Do you see a trend emerging?)
How far is too far? Brandon Ross’s sin seems to have been to get personal - their material has no shortage of gross/sexual/tastless content, but what made it unpalatable was that there was an individual target, without the right of reply, who seems to have been thoughtlessly picked on and made fun of.
This is what comedy does all the time, from Les Dawsons mother-in-law to Steve Coogans desperate DJ’s and former roadies - but they pick on a stereotype, a human characteristic, an abstraction, rather than a real person. Satire like HIGNFY picks on people who are already in the public eye, but often to expose hypocrisy, mixed motives and political spin. That’s very different to what happened on 18th October.
Have I Got **** For You
But even the language markers on Have I Got News for You have shifted. Yesterdays show was unusual in it’s use of the bleeper (does anyone know why f*** is offensive when Tom Baker says it but not when it’s Alexander Armstrong?) - normally there is no censorship of bad language, and it wasn’t always like that. There has been a relentless erosion of the forbidden territory here, and in some ways the answerphone messages are the logical extension of this. If broadcasters can now use whatever words they like, the only way to shock or push the boundaries is in how you use them, or who you use them to.
Instead, the shock has been that there actually was a boundary. From Jools Holland (using the f-word live on Channel 4 in the Tube, a massive scandal in its day) to Chris Evans, Graham Norton, and Russell Brand the BBC has stuffed its schedules with known boundary-pushers. The only suprise is that they’ve not invited Chris Morris to present the news. (For what it’s worth, I like Hollands show, and last year he performed a new Mass setting in a couple of Cathedrals, so he’s virtually an Establishment figure now.)
There are some boundaries of taste which have tightened considerably. Racist, and to a lesser extent sexist humour are now mostly taboo (though Life on Mars got away with both by setting the jokes in 1973). But these are the exception rather than the rule.
Can You Laugh at Jesus?
However religion hasn’t gone the same way. For me as a Christian, to hear Jesus ridiculed and made a figure of fun is deeply offensive. To some degree I’m so used to it that it’s less offensive than it should be. I’m not talking about things like Life of Brian, which (the crucifixion scene apart, which I find quite uncomfortable) was a brilliant religious satire. But the Jerry Springer broadcast demonstrated that there was, effectively, nothing that would be deemed too offensive to show when it came to Christianity, and no level of protest which would cause broadcasters to think again.
There is a difference between how Christianity is treated and how other faiths are dealt with. In part it’s ignorance - there is still some general public awareness of the Christian story and Christian stereotypes, which comedians can make use of. Just imagine this Eddie Izzard routine applied to, say Hinduism. It’s the Christian reference points which make it work. We just don’t know enough about other religions to make them the stuff of comedy.
It’s also partly fear, especially when it comes to Islam, because whilst we’ve established what people will put up with (or at least, what everyone except thousands of dismayed Christians will put up with) when Christianity is ridiculed, those lines are nothing like as clear with Mohammed and the Koran. And we’re so used to Christians protesting politely that the vehemence of Islamic outrage is a shock.
A third reason is the fact that the relationship between Western satire and secularism and Muslim culture is much less developed than it’s relationship with Christianity. For the latter, you can go back to Chaucer, with Islam we just have Omid Djalili. Except that he’s Bahai.
The Brand Bounce?
Last year was the bicentenary of the abolition of slavery, achieved against mountainous opposition by William Wilberforce and other campaigners. Wilberforce’s other main achievement was the ‘reformation of manners’:
Wilberforce’s second life goal was “the reformation of manners.” What he envisioned was a restoration to Britain of the Christian virtues of charity and civility in a culture that had markedly decayed in both
and he succeeded in transforming a society which tolerated slavery, child prostitution, and poverty alongside the dissolute lives of the rich. It is possible for boundaries of taste and decency to shift upwards, as well as downwards. We can be just a bit more restrained than we are now, without invoking the Victorian Values bogeyman (that convenient killer of debate). I’d love to see it in my lifetime. I’d love to see it start this week.
* this song, which seems very relevant now!
This is a cross-post from the Touching Base column hosted by the Wardman Wire
PS if you've not had enough of all this by now, then try this article by Howard Jacobsen in the Independent.