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Created: 1st August 2001
Notes From a Small Planet
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Clear Eye

I just had to watch that TV show. The build-up to it had been so extraordinary that I didn't want to miss out, even though there was ample warning that it might be seriously offensive. I've been around. I don't shock easily. I was sure that I'd be able to take it. But in the event, I found the show so nauseating that I had to switch off after 10 minutes or so.

I'm sorry, but I simply couldn't take any more of "You Had To Be There: The Royal Wedding", the documentary marking the 20th anniversary of Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana's wedding. The footage of the crowds celebrating the wedding was just too repulsive. It featured scenes of explicit sycophancy and public fawning between consenting adults that were simply too much for me.

But the "Brass Eye" special satirising media hysteria over paedophiles - now that was excellent! Because of the subject matter, it was occasionally uncomfortable viewing, but then satire isn't supposed to be cosy. It was sometimes shocking, but it was also very, very funny. It had me in fits of laughter.

Then, the next day, I read in the papers that if I'd enjoyed it, I must be sick.

For non-British readers, I should now explain that this has been the week the UK media fed upon itself. Summer is traditionally the "silly season" in the British newspaper industry, and the past few days' papers have certainly complied with that tradition. The two stories that have dominated the papers have both been based around television programmes. First we had endless coverage of the outcome of the current series of "Big Brother", the monumentally tedious phenomenon neatly parodied in the "Post"'s "Big Bandwagon". But the greatest furore has been over that special edition of Channel 4's "Brass Eye", a superb satire show that has frequently caused controversy in the past - but never before on the scale seen in the past few days.

The latest edition of "Brass Eye" went deep into taboo territory with a spoof documentary about paedophilia. The real subject of the satire, however, was not child sex abuse itself but the UK media's treatment of the issue, which at times has been both hysterical and grossly irresponsible. Last year, the Sunday tabloid "News Of The World" ran a "name and shame" campaign in which it published the names and photos of convicted sex offenders. This prompted a series of vigilante demonstrations and attacks on people suspected of involvement in paedophilia, often on the flimsiest of evidence. The incidents following the "NOTW" reports included one in which a paediatrician's surgery was attacked by people who obviously failed to grasp the considerable difference between a child molester and a doctor specialising in children's illnesses.

"Brass Eye"'s parody really only took the surrealism up a few notches from the paediatrician incident. Its brilliant writer and presenter Chris Morris announced that the paedophile threat to children was so serious that all Britian's kids were being rounded up and held in sports stadia for their own protection. Celebrities, including Phil Collins and a couple of alarmingly gullible MPs, were duped into backing fictitious safety campaigns with outlandish names, or giving bizarre "explanations" as to how paedophiles supposedly operated.

Collins solemnly announced "I'm talking Nonce Sense". Other celebs, clearly not used to questioning the scripts they're given to read, "explained" how paedophiles could make a special gas emerge from a child's computer keyboard in order to make the child "more susceptible", and how a determined pervert could "feel" any part of a child that touched a computer screen by operating a computer using special gloves. (There was more, much more, in a similarly surreal vein. For a list of highlights, see the 'Guardian' newspaper's website.

So the "Brass Eye" special was a show about hysteria in which people speak from ignorance. And what was the reaction to it? Er - hysteria in which people spoke from ignorance. The tabloids fumed about "The sickest show ever". Then the government got involved. Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, declared that "If this is considered acceptable material, we are tearing down the boundaries of decency on TV." The Home Office's child protection minister Beverley Hughes described the show as "unspeakably sick" - then admitted that she hadn't actually seen it.

At this point, I was feeling pretty sickened myself - not by "Brass Eye", but at the fact that I'd voted Labour and thus helped to put these people in power.

Then, some surprising things happened. People refused to be told when to be outraged. True, Channel 4 received hundreds of complaints - but the station also received hundreds of calls supporting the show. Significantly, among those who wrote to politicians and newspapers in support of "Brass Eye" were people who were themselves survivors of child sexual abuse. And suddenly, the government line changed dramatically.

Ms Jowell now announced:
"I've made it absolutely clear that programme content and regulatory issues that arise from this are a matter for broadcasters and regulators, not government".

Quite so. It's just a pity that it took her so long to realise that.

The real problem here is that the Blair government takes such a cynical and pessimistic view of the people it governs. Britain is no longer a nation of curtain-twitching conservatives, incapable of coping with challenging entertainment. If we were, right-wing newspapers like the "Daily Mail" would sell a lot more copies and the Conservative Party would have a realistic chance of being elected.

If the government would respect our intelligence, I'd find it easier to respect them.

The bride and bride

Some months ago, I was delighted to congratulate the first homosexual couples to be legally married in Holland. Now, it's time to say "congratulations and good luck" to Angelika and Gudrun Pannier, who became the first German couple to be legally declared wife and wife in a ceremony in Berlin this week. The happy couple wore matching tuxedos, and cut a cake with two model brides on top.

The ceremony was made possible by a new law passed by the German government last year. It doesn't give Angelika and Gudrun the same tax privileges as heterosexual married couples, but they will receive the same inheritance and health insurance benefits. And should it all turn sour and they want to part company, they'll have to go to court to get a divorce.

Interviewed after the ceremony, Angelika's comments were down-to-earth:
"There is still a lot more to do, but it is the first step. Before, everything was separate, like our bank accounts and insurance, but now it can be one. That makes day to day life more easier."

Gudrun was a little more romantic:
"We exchanged rings symbolically five years ago, but this is the real thing."

Hardly, I think you'll agree, the words of people who pose a threat to civilisation; and legal recognition of homosexual partnerships doesn't appear to have done much harm to Denmark, France, Sweden, Iceland and Norway. All of those countries changed their marriage laws to accept gay couples before Holland and Germany. The Belgian and Finnish governments are contemplating similar changes.

Yet in Britain, London mayor Ken Livingstone's register for same-sex partnerships is the nearest we get to giving legal status to gay and lesbian couples. The Blair administration continues to rule it out - again, I imagine, for fear of offending that mythical conservative consensus. But at least Britain hasn't gone as far as the 35 American states who have passed so-called "defence of marriage" laws, enshrining in law the exclusive definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

What are the legislators that pass such laws afraid of? Surely the answer can't be "a substantial minority of the people who pay taxes to them"?

Brothers under the skin

Finally, much understandable concern has been caused by the court decision to lift a long-standing ban preventing the controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan from visiting Britain. Given Farrakhan's history of extremist rhetoric laced with anti-Semitic outbursts, there are fears that his presence might further damage race relations in Britain, already battered this year by the rioting that has raged in several towns across northern England.

I believe that I have the perfect solution. Farrakhan should be allowed to visit Britain if he wants to - and Nick Griffin, the leader of the British National Party, should be engaged by the government to act as his host and guide during the visit.

They'd get on famously! They have so many views in common. Both appear to believe that Hitler was a great guy, that racial segregation is a good idea, that the world's Jews have a lot to answer for, that homosexuality is evil, and that women should shut up and know their place. One may be black and the other white, but the universal brotherhood of bigotry unites them.

With Farrakhan and Griffin together in one place, it'd be easier for the police to keep an eye on them - and the rest of us could go somewhere else and leave them both to drown in their own poison.


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