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Jana Bennett


Jana Bennett

BBC Director of Television

Letting artistic merit speak for itself - The Founder's Dinner, St Anne's College, Oxford

Monday 28 February 2005
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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 and economics.

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 wrong interviews.

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 at risk.

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 involved.

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 police.

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 family values.

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 show.

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 website.

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 and audiences.

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 people.

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 broadcaster.

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 twice.

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 standard.

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 show host.

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 such 'scurrilities'.

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 long forgotten.

Were he alive today, all I can say is that Veronese should undoubtedly be working in television!


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