I have a little poser for you. Below I’ll describe two programmes. Both have been seen elsewhere before coming to TV. One has already been shown on pay TV, but is coming to free-to-air soon, the other hasn’t been on TV before, but again is about to come to free-to-air. All the information I will use to describe the programmes is accurate and can be confirmed from freely available reputable sources.
The first is a show whose initial concept was to try to broaden the appeal of opera. The writer has enjoyed considerable success, including a successful comedy series on BBC Radio 4. It has been staged by the National Theatre, and currently is enjoying a successful west end run. The show is due to move to New York later this year. The show has won multiple best show awards including the Evening Standard and Olivier Awards. As well as receiving critical acclaim from theatre critics, the public and the theatre industry, the show has also attracted celebrities from around the world: Sir Michael Caine, Simon Cowell, Sheryl Crow, Michael Douglas, Kelsey Grammer, Harvey Keitel, Sir Ian McKellan, Helen Mirren, Pink, Rachel Stevens, Meg Ryan, Sigourney Weaver and Catherine Zeta-Jones. The show was described by the Guardian as “…a mega hit… this is easily the hottest ticket in London.”, and the Daily Mirror billed it as “The greatest production on earth… two hours and 20 minutes of sheer theatrical bliss….”.
Turning to the other, it is a movie that is regarded as one of the most violent of recent years. The film has a number of extended scenes of graphic, sadistic violence and torture, some lasting as long as twenty-five minutes. The well known director has in a previous film included a graphic execution and disembowelling scene at the climax of that movie. The film is in a large part based on books that have been declared as blasphemous, and banned by the Catholic Church. The film includes dialogue that is regarded as the cause of a large amount of religious hatred and violence. At showings of this movie, audience members have been removed suffering from symptoms of shock, and many are distressed by the experience. There are some cases of audience members having died during the most graphic parts of the movie.
With one of these, as a result of advance publicity, many leaders of prominent groups, without having seen it themselves, gave away free tickets to shows as they considered it so important that everybody should have a chance to see it. With the other, prominent groups have campaigned against it, saying that it is offensive and blasphemous. As a result of an e-mail campaign over 15,000 complaints the majority of complainants objecting on principle, not having seen the show, have been received prior to the TV showing. In addition Mediawatch, who monitor TV standards have written to the chairman of the TV station asking that it not be shown on free-to-air.
If you’ve been keeping an eye on the news over the past year or so, you’ll know exactly which two programmes I am talking about, and will of course have realised which show the complaints are being received about.
However, if you used only the facts that I have given, and no other information, you would quite probably conclude that the 15,000 complaints were received about the blasphemous violent movie, rather than the award winning show. When I say that the award winning show is “Jerry Springer: The Opera”, and the movie is “The Passion of the Christ”, things become more clear!
The main point I want to make is that, if they receive an e-mail that says the BBC is going to show a programme that contains thousands of swearwords and is blasphemous, most Christians will get concerned (indeed 15,000 of them have complained). However with The Passion of the Christ, it was trailed, and indeed most people seem to think that it is strongly based on the bible. The fact that Mel Gibson based large parts of the film used two books that were banned as blasphemous by the Catholic Church, and that those sequences can’t be found in any Bible, usually comes as a big surprise. The fact is that both campaigns are examples of exactly what I have done here. The campaigners know exactly who they’re trying to sell their message to, and are highlighting specific facts in order to get the desired response. Basically it is spin.
Moving on to the secondary question about whether either of those controversial programmes should be shown (incidentally “Passion of the Christ” is the one that has already gone out on pay TV), I would say yes, but with caveats. The caveats being that in both cases there is significant content that people may find offensive, or be disturbed by, therefore it has to be shown at a suitable time, and with suitable warnings. One is excessively violent, the other uses large amounts of bad language, both of which are offensive to large proportions of the audience (not just Christians), both contain sections considered blasphemous and sections that are religiously offensive to some group or other in the multi-ethnic United Kingdom.
Both have been particularly successful with large numbers of people in the UK. The BBC is paid for by everybody in the UK with a TV, and therefore has a duty to provide programming that will appeal to both broad areas, and specialist programming that will appeal to minority groups. In simple terms it has to appeal to some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time. However I believe that to do that it can’t appeal to all of the people all of the time, and that if it is forced to do that then ultimately it will be lost, if not in this charter review, but in ten years time.
There are loads of programmes on the BBC that I don’t watch, and that if I had to pay on a per programme basis, there are a number I would be quite happy not pay for, however it is important to realise that for all of those programmes there is an audience, even if I’m not part of it. The same is true of both Jerry Springer: The Opera, and The Passion of the Christ.
I know people who, having actually seen Jerry Springer: The Opera on stage, loved it, and are looking forward to watching it again on TV. Others I know don’t want to see it at all. The BBC and others offers a choice of channels, precisely to allow people to have a choice over what to watch, and there has been ample publicity of the content of the programme.
Incidentally, as to whether I’ll watch it – probably not. Based on what I’ve heard, it doesn’t sound like something I’d enjoy, but besides that there is something else that I want to watch on another channel, I’ll watch that instead!