Monday 28 February 2005
Check against delivery
Thank you Tim and good evening ladies and gentlemen.
I was so pleased to be asked to speak at the Founder's Dinner.
For me it's a chance to revisit St Anne's and remember the three wonderful
years I spent here. I never imagined that I would one day give a speech
from High Table.
As an American, I loved the sense of history that permeated every aspect
of life at Oxford. Although the way that history came up occasionally
took me by surprise.
For instance, I recall being puzzled when they grilled me about Henry
VIII at what should have been an interview for politics, philosophy
I got through the questions and remember thinking - just how far back
do these guys take their politics? It turned out there was another J
Bennett who had applied for history and we had both been called to the
When that had been sorted out I remember being taught by the most
amazing collection of iconoclasts.
Like my politics tutor who was later falsely accused by the Sunday
Times of being a Russian spy.
And my economics tutor who was alleged to have helped her friend Rose
Dugdale and an IRA gang in the Seventies by hiding the paintings they
had stolen in her London flat.
Her extremely smelly Afghan hound infused all our sessions on economic
theory in her tiny study.
To this day, whenever I hear the words Keynes General Theory I come
over all queasy.
Oxford was rarely dull, that's for sure, and it undoubtedly gave us
a radically different take on what was happening in the world.
That was particularly true for St Anne's, which always made a point
of engaging with society as a whole. Maybe that's why so many of my
contemporaries went on to enjoy successful careers in the media.
Jackey Ashley who now works for the Guardian was my flatmate and we
are still close friends. Tina Brown became the editor of the Tatler
aged 25 and went on to achieve a high profile in America as the editor
of Vanity Fair and the New Yorker.
Now your appointment as principal, Tim, strengthens the college's
media connections. And of course your predecessor, Dame Ruth Deech,
is a BBC Governor.
I first joined the BBC 25 years ago and returned in 2002 after three
years in the States with Discovery Communications.
As the Director of BBC Television, my responsibilities include BBC
ONE and TWO and the BBC's digital channels, BBC THREE and FOUR.
I'm sorry I can't show any TV clips this evening. When I was here back
in the Seventies I must admit that I hardly watched any TV at all. So
I hope today's students will be familiar with at least some of the shows
I'm going to mention in a moment, but my theme should be known to you.
Freedom of expression. I'm sure everyone here feels perfectly free
to express themselves on any subject at Oxford. But it's not a freedom
that we should take for granted in the wider world. Especially in the
world of the arts and the media right now.
A passionate debate challenging freedom of expression is underway on
both sides of the Atlantic. Greater pressure is being placed on broadcasters
and arts organisations than at any time I can recall in my media career.
It's time to ask why freedom of expression is important and why it's
Does one person's freedom of expression inevitably risk offending
other people? Should we give in to the protesters who shout loudest
or muster the greatest numbers of complaints?
When Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie following
publication of his novel the Satanic Verses, Rushdie wrote: "What is
freedom of expression? Without freedom to offend it ceases to exist."
Undoubtedly offence can be taken as Rushdie discovered.
The current debate about freedom of expression has implications for
the arts as a whole. It is not always a debate in which everyone is
prepared to listen to another point of view.
Sometimes it is characterised by an undercurrent of intimidation and
violence in a way that appears to be symptomatic of our time.
We're in an age where multiculturalism, diversity and tolerance rub
shoulders sometimes uneasily with freedom of expression.
We're in an age where the subject of 'respect' itself is lampooned
by comedians like Ali G.
Protests can swiftly turn aggressive and highly personal for those
When Birmingham Repertory Theatre was forced to cancel its production
of the play Behzti in December it was a blow for freedom of expression.
And a triumph for the protesters who stormed the venue and injured five
They objected to Sikh playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's depiction of
sex abuse and murder in a Sikh temple. The theatre regretted that the
'ugly' violence had caused free speech to be curbed.
Bhatti herself had this to say: "[Courageous] writers sometimes
cause offence. But perhaps those who are affronted by the menace of
dialogue and discussion need to be offended."
For every theatre, there is a real danger that the outcome will be
reluctance to risk controversy.
The director of the National Theatre, Nicholas Hytner, is among those
who are warning of the dangers. In his view, causing offence is the
very business of theatre - he points out that Western theatre was invented
in Athens precisely to put on stage feelings that were too dangerous
to experience in real life.
Works of the imagination can exorcise those feelings. In America, broadcasters
have been running scared because of the rise in fundamentalist attitudes.
One event that has triggered huge moral outrage sounds like a joke
- but its aftermath has not been at all funny.
It was Janet Jackson's appearance on the Superbowl, the biggest showcase
in America's media calendar. You may recall that a certain offending
part of Janet Jackson's anatomy popped out during her performance when
she had a 'wardrobe malfunction'.
What ensued is now known in the media as 'Nipplegate'. According to
the critics, that single moment lasting precisely 1.7 seconds, destroyed
But what has followed has been a period of the most intense pressure
on American broadcasters.
The Federal Complaints Commission received over half a million complaints.
Now the chairman has resigned and the TV networks have been shaken into
great conservatism about taste and decency issues.
CBS were fined $500,000 and MTV lost their contract to produce the
American TV culture risks becoming polarised because American style
fundamentalists are activists in everything from media and politics
to the books kids read in school.
Giving these activists the power to restrict freedom of expression
is a slippery slope and we have seen where it can lead.
In Afghanistan under the Taleban music was banished from the radio
in order to reflect fundamentalist values. So were female presenters.
When it came to television, the Taleban's solution was even more radical
and comprehensive. TV was deemed a source of moral corruption and simply
banned altogether. It has been called the Taleban's 'Tele ban'.
Now no one in this country is suggesting that Jeremy Paxman and the
cast of EastEnders should pack their bags just yet. But even here broadcasters
are coming under more pressure than at any time since the Eighties.
In those days outrage was usually sparked by the work of Dennis Potter
(another PPE graduate from Oxford, incidentally).
Then as now, the BBC and Channel 4 tended to come in for most of the
criticism, which was stirred up by sections of the press.
Last month the BBC hit the headlines again by going ahead with its
broadcast of Jerry Springer The Opera, which is based on the epitome
of American popular television culture - the Jerry Springer talkshow.
The stage production won the accolade for best musical at the Olivier
Awards, the Critics' Circle Awards and the Evening Standard Awards.
But it contains a lot of bad language and, in a dream sequence, features
characters playing Jesus, Mary and God as Springer's guests on the show.
Complaints flooded in when the Daily Mail reported that the BBC would
broadcast more than 8,000 obscenities.
We were puzzled when we read the headline because that would have meant
one swear word a second. So we counted them.
In fact I have a little list! (One of the more surreal aspects of my
job, incidentally, is receiving regular summaries of such words planned
to be broadcast).
If you want to get to 8,000 you have to include words like - sorry,
but here it comes again - nipple. And - excuse me if you are going to
be offended - poop. Then multiply by the number of singers in the chorus
(and there were 27 of them).
But whatever the word count, why the bad language? It was not cynically
designed to shock - far from it.
There is a clear distinction, for example, with the aims of French
Connection's FCUK advertising campaign, which has arguably done more
to make foul language cool on the street than the television medium.
One of the points of the opera is that the vocabularies of people who
appear on Springer's show are impoverished.
Turning such dialogue into opera makes a point about the way the show,
and programmes like it, exploit inarticulate people. People who, like
the rest of us, want to be respected and make their voices heard.
For those who criticised the show on religious grounds, the principal
objection was the depiction of Jesus, Mary and God.
Protesters demonstrated outside Television Centre and the home telephone
numbers of me and the Controller of BBC TWO were published on a Christian
We were surprised by the scale of the protests because Christian groups
had not complained about the production on stage, despite some 550 performances.
Although, since the broadcast, protests have taken place outside the
theatre, which has had to enlist security staff to protect the cast
The BBC received 49,000 complaints, many by email. Should protests
on such a scale be allowed to affect what is broadcast?
Although of course we do have to consider what people say to us, we
believe the answer is no they should not. It is now easy for relatively
small numbers of protesters to organise what may appear to be mass protests.
It is not clear how many emails actually originated from Britain and
how many from America and other parts of the world. But more importantly
we are not running some kind of Pop Idol competition in which the greatest
number of votes gets a programme pulled from the schedule.
Clear warnings were given before and during the programme.
In the event, 1.8 million people chose to watch - significantly more
than the normal audience for an opera on TV and a higher number of young
We received 1400 calls and emails over the weekend of the broadcast,
500 in support and 900 that complained.
Many viewers wanted to enter into a different dialogue than those who
sought to censor a piece they had only heard about.
One woman wrote: "I am deeply committed to my religion and deeply
committed to seeing a secular public space in which all viewpoints can
be commented on, heard and judged on their merits."
I believe that goes to the heart of the issue. We should respect the
right of people to protest, and respect the right of people to be offended.
But we must also uphold the rights of our audiences to see works of
high artistic quality. That is our responsibility as a public service
And Jerry Springer is hardly the first opera to have dealt with such
controversial themes. Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte features partner swapping
as part of a cynical bet.
Verdi's La Traviata has a prostitute as heroine, and in Don Carlos
he dared to dramatise the crimes of the Spanish Inquisition complete
with a public execution of Protestant heretics on stage.
Wagner's Parsifal includes celebration of Holy Communion, which was
regarded as absolutely shocking in the 19th Century - and not once but
At the BBC we get letters from secularists objecting to Songs of Praise
and we say that's too bad, we believe it serves a portion of the audience.
Our answer is the same: you have a right not to watch.
Our responsibility is to serve our audiences while being sensitive
to the concerns of minorities. For a programme like Jerry Springer the
Opera, one of the crucial factors that a broadcaster must consider is
whether the programme has artistic merit.
We have to judge whether that merit outweighs any offence that may
be caused - and even then we must decide if any offence is acceptable.
Making that judgement is subjective but it is something that broadcasting
organisations have to do all the time.
One factor that makes the judgement easier is when it is clear what
an artist is trying to say.
For instance, the BBC had to make a decision about whether to broadcast
a new animated sitcom called Popetown, set in a fictional Vatican, with
Ruby Wax playing the Pope.
In the end we found it wasn't clear what the programme was trying to
say. The programme makers put in a huge amount of creative effort but
we decided not to go ahead with broadcasts after viewing the series.
Not because of the complaints we received from practising Catholics
but because we felt the show lacked sufficient comedy merit and purpose
to outweigh the risk of offence.
Poking fun at religious institutions such as the Catholic Church can
be both funny and affectionate, as Father Ted demonstrated so well.
Even the most taboo subjects can be entertaining. It's perhaps easier
for audiences to laugh at Springtime for Hitler in Mel Brooks' film
The Producers because the author is Jewish and therefore his point of
view is clear. But ridicule for its own sake is not amusing.
And general attitudes to acceptable humour have changed too. Take Benny
Hill and Kenny Everett - while there's some classic comedy value, the
depiction of gays and women isn't what make these shows funny today.
Whereas in the comedy Little Britain, what makes Daffyd funny is not
the fact that he is gay but that he is determined to remain the only
gay in his Welsh village.
Broadcasters are sometimes accused of applying different criteria to
Christianity and other religions such as Islam - of having a double
That is not so, although we must be sensitive to the fact we are dealing
with minority religious groups and ethnic minorities, where there may
be a risk of fostering racial hatred.
Islam and Islamic terrorism are topics that have featured recently
in both drama and comedy series.
The comedy animation Monkey Dust features three would-be terrorists
from West Bromwich who are planning a jihad but break for beans on toast
when their mum calls them.
It's a satire that's funny because it has a point to make about the
oddity of a pair of fictional Islamic radicals in Britain married to
such a fundamentally British way of life.
An episode of the drama series Spooks, set in the world of MI5, portrayed
a foreign Muslim extremist using a Birmingham mosque as cover. We received
protests from Muslim groups but we went ahead with the BBC ONE transmission
because we were confident that it offered a balanced view and did not
reinforce negative stereotypes of British Muslims.
However when Robert Kilroy Silk's views about Arabs were published
in the Sunday Express we had to part company with him as a BBC talk
People who express highly controversial views are welcome on the BBC
but they cannot be presenters of a news, current affairs or topical
discussion programme. They have to be, and be seen to be, impartial.
With drama, it's important to signal the perspective that a controversial
programme is taking and show clarity of authorship.
The ITV drama Hillsborough, about the inquest into the accident that
claimed the lives of 96 Liverpool football fans, succeeded despite the
anger aroused by the issue.
Audiences were clearly told they were being given the point of view
of the author, Jimmy McGovern, not a documentary treatment.
The same can be said of Holy Cross - a fictional drama set within real
events on the Ardoyne Road in Belfast, where schoolgirls had to walk
to their Catholic school through a Protestant area.
The programme showed what is like to be trapped in that kind of situation
and it was responsibly and sensitively done.
Television must be allowed to engage with the real world in this way,
to put on work which challenges and informs audiences about what is
happening around them.
It's all too easy for television to focus on some kind of fake world
- the artificial world of Big Brother, for example - and not take on
the challenge of presenting the world back to itself.
It would be easy for television to become a consensual medium offering
little more than a regular dose of Mogadon for the masses.
To ensure we don't let that happen, broadcasters must be free to commission
work that will surprise and sometimes shock.
I believe that is the essence of freedom of expression.
This being Oxford I wanted to conclude with a short story from the
history books! It demonstrates how the process of commissioning work
can occasionally cause more surprise and shock than intended (as many
who commission programmes for broadcasting organisations will confirm).
In 16th century Venice, the friars of the monastery of San Giovanni
e Paolo commissioned Veronese to paint the Last Supper of Christ.
But they had no idea of the extent to which he would unleash his creative
imagination. As well as Jesus and the disciples he found room for a
range of figures that definitely weren't in the biblical text, including
some dwarfs, drunken German soldiers and a jester with a parrot.
The friars who had commissioned the work for their monastery were horrified
and Veronese was eventually hauled before the Inquisition who condemned
He invoked the artist's right to creative freedom and came up with
an ingenious solution. He changed the title of his work to Feast at
the House of Levi, which according to Luke, calls for the presence of
'publicans and sinners'.
It's a great painting and it demonstrates how artistic quality can
endure when prevailing notions restricting freedom of expression are
Were he alive today, all I can say is that Veronese should undoubtedly
be working in television!