Stationers' Livery Lecture given in London - Angels and Emails
Monday 7 March 2005
As you can imagine, one of the many blessings which the Jerry Springer affair brought me was a rich postbag. Some of the letters were thoughtful, some just plain angry.
Former heads of religious programmes at the BBC always claim that the most apoplectic letters – the you-should-be-strung-up-right-now-you-bastard-son-of-Satan letters – invariably sign off with phrases like 'with all God's blessings' or 'yours in Christ'.
Sadly, I didn't get one of those, but there was the odd surprise.
'Dear Mr Thompson', one concerned viewer wrote, 'I am sickened and disgusted at you and the BBC for allowing the Frank Skinner musical to be broadcast. I wonder', the letter goes on, 'will you balance such filth and vileness by showing something related to Islam? I think not!!!'
Not a particularly Christian thought that last one, though the idea of a special new filth-balancing department does sound very BBC.
In fact, the overwhelming majority of letters, emails and phone calls I got were reasoned, courteous and serious.
There was certainly nothing like the letter my friend John Ware of Panorama once got about an investigative report he'd just made in Northern Ireland.
'Mr Ware,' this particular viewer wrote, 'I would rather eat dog shit than watch another of your programmes.'
John replied with the two words: 'bon appetit'.
In fact I received a very large number of messages of support and encouragement as well, and I want to dwell for a moment on one of these.
It was a postcard pushed through my letterbox at home on the day Jerry Springer The Opera went out on BBC TWO and it came from a neighbour and a friend.
On the back it said: 'as a Christian and former Church Warden, I want you to know you have my FULL support for screening Jerry Springer tonight. I am increasingly worried at the growing lack of tolerance, humourlessness and threats to freedom of speech. Don't let the extremists get you down!'
Now that obviously goes to the substance of the debate to which I'll turn in a moment.
But on the front of the postcard was one of my favourite pictures: the Albrecht Dürer engraving Knight, Death and the Devil.
On the face of it, this dark tableau – the grim-faced knight on horseback, the two threatening yet beguiling figures of Death and the Devil – seems about as far as it could be from the world of modern media, the world of the i-pod and the EPG.
But it still felt oddly apposite – and would probably have felt equally apposite to those who were profoundly opposed to the broadcast.
Where we might have disagreed was about exactly who was playing which role.
Was the BBC best seen as that stern-looking knight, pressing on resolutely in the name of freedom of expression despite the threats from what another friendly letter-writer called 'the forces of endarkenment'? We might like to think so.
Or were we better cast in the role of that gentleman standing behind the knight, the one with the horns and the tail and the ready smile who looks as if he would be very much at home presenting a certain kind of daytime quiz show?
Was the BBC acting in other words not in the interests of freedom but of religious and social degradation?
Then there's that third gaunt figure. The baleful glance, the hourglass, the snakes in the hair: he's got to be from Ofcom – either that or he's a Governor who's just read the Green Paper.
Was that the part we were playing, signalling the end of something – the end of morality, of any decent set of standards?
One might ask similar questions of those who were most vocal in their opposition to the broadcast.
Were they best seen as the valiant soldiers of light and truth battling against the levelling forces of modernity? Or as forces of darkness and repression, bent on undermining fundamental rights and freedoms with rage and intimidation?
Now you might say it's rather ridiculous to use a 16th century engraving to illuminate a debate about 21st century broadcasting standards.
But my point is that we live at a moment when divisions over religion, morality and secular rights are deeper than they've been for many years, the clash of world views more absolute.
For well over a hundred years, many people have believed that secular modernism spelt, if not the outright death of religion, then its retreat into an essentially private realm.
Now, whether one thinks that would have been desirable or not, it clearly has not happened. Recent decades have seen what amounts to a global religious revival.
Even in the West we take an interest in, say, the religious beliefs of our political leaders that would have been regarded as eccentric a generation ago.
Newspapers and TV and radio bulletins teem with the language of religion: not just in measured debates about royal weddings or homosexuality and the clergy, but a fiery language that Dürer himself would have recognised – the language of martyrs, infidels, blasphemy, holy war.
And even in the United Kingdom, one of the most secular nations on earth, we've learned that religious passion – and the secular reaction or counterpart to it – can burn with almost as much intensity in the age of the email as it did in the days when the only kind of instant messaging imaginable was via the angels.
Now for most people, all this is at most an interesting subject for debate. But for me and my colleagues at the BBC, it's rather more than that.
We find ourselves between the trenches in a bitter war. And we have actual decisions to make.
Do you transmit this documentary? Do you censor this feature film? Do you put this guest or this point of view on this discussion programme?
Nor is there an obvious 'safety first' option: nowadays we get more complaints if we edit strong language from feature films than if we don't; decisions to withdraw programmes are just as likely to be scrutinised or pilloried as decisions to show them.
Every contentious judgement call is taken to have a wider meaning.
So what I thought I would do this evening is to tell you the story of just one decision – the decision to air Jerry Springer The Opera – set out some of the factors that led us to make the judgement we did, and then explore a few of the issues it raises.
Jerry Springer is a piece of musical theatre written by Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee.
It was a fringe piece to begin with, but was chosen by Nicholas Hytner to put on at the National Theatre and in due course became a major success in the West End.
It is a pungent, sometimes genuinely shocking work but was widely critically acclaimed.
It won numerous awards, including Best West End musical. It was favourably reviewed by many papers and periodicals, including The Church Times, The Catholic Herald, The Tablet and so on.
Although it was seen by many hundreds of thousands of people and presumably by many tens of thousands of Christians, there were few if any complaints either about the show in general or about blasphemy in particular. There were no public protests.
Peter Maniura, our Head of TV Classical Music, decided that it was one of the pieces of opera and musical theatre he wanted to put on BBC TWO.
Peter, it must be said, is not a man who typically courts notoriety or populism for its own sake: he's practically the head of our dumbing up department.
His output over the past few months has included such other shockers as Covent Garden's new Rheingold and La Fille Mal Gardé.
Peter discussed the idea of televising the West End version of Jerry Springer with Roly Keating, the Controller of BBC TWO.
They also consulted Stephen Whittle, who is the BBC's Controller of Editorial Policy.
The Editorial Policy Department is an independent unit in the BBC which is there to offer objective advice to editorial decision-makers – including me as editor-in-chief – and to develop the guidelines which all BBC commissioners and programme-makers must follow.
In a case like Springer, one of the questions we consider is: would this transmission be lawful? Does it, for instance, contravene the law on blasphemy?
In the event we concluded that a prosecution under the law of blasphemous libel was highly unlikely to succeed.
But of course a programme can be lawful and still unsuitable for transmission: because, for instance, of its possible impact on children; or because of its power to shock or offend viewers who came upon it unawares.
In fact, it was always intended that Jerry Springer should be broadcast long after the watershed, a boundary of taste which we try to police stringently, and that it would not only have extensive verbal and visual warnings in front of it, but that it would be preceded by a hour's worth of documentary background.
And it would be shown on BBC TWO rather than our mass-audience channel BBC ONE.
In other words, this was to be presented to the public as a serious piece of musical theatre, part of BBC TWO's broader commitment to arts, carefully contextualised and with very clear warnings to prepare the audience for what to expect.
Perhaps here I should say something which may appear obvious but which is sometimes forgotten.
Our advice would always be: if you believe you may be offended by something on BBC television, radio or online, don't watch or listen to it – turn it off or turn over.
Now some libertarians would say that this is the end of the argument.
Jerry Springer was a work which many people believed was of real artistic merit. It fitted very clearly into BBC TWO's mission to bring outstanding opera and musical theatre to the screen so that people who perhaps couldn't get to see it in the theatre could nonetheless enjoy it.
The programme could be labelled and contextualised in order that those who, for whatever reason, didn't wish to see it could steer well clear or press the off button.
So what's the problem?
Well, life for the BBC is bit more complex than that.
The BBC is owned by and paid for by the whole of the British public.
And, in the context of the BBC at least, members of public have the right to be offended by the idea of a programme they have no intention of watching or listening to: to be offended by the mere presence of such a programme in a BBC schedule; or to be offended or concerned about the effect such a programme might have on the people who do watch.
They have the right to be offended and to express that sense of offence and the BBC has to take proper note of it.
But this right has to be considered alongside other rights.
Everything else I've talked about – the law, the watershed, proper warnings, proper contextualisation – is important: but this, the consideration of competing rights and interests is where editorial decision-makers begin to earn their money.
According to the Agreement associated with the BBC's Charter, the BBC must not broadcast programmes 'which include anything which offends against good taste or decency or is likely to […] be offensive to public feeling'.
The BBC's Producers' Guidelines note that 'the right to challenge audience expectations in surprising and innovative ways, when circumstances justify, must also be safeguarded. […] An item which might be interpreted by some viewers or listeners as being in bad taste should only be broadcast after careful consideration, not carelessly or by mistake. It must be justified by its purpose, and by the overall quality of the programme'.
I think all of that is well put, though my own view is that the important countervailing right is better expressed as the right of audiences to have the opportunity decide for themselves to what extent they wish to be challenged and stretched.
People sometimes talk about freedom of expression as if it only concerns the person who wants to do the expressing – as if it's a kind of tolerance of artistic self-indulgence – whereas it's really also about the public's fundamental freedom to choose for themselves what they watch or listen to: and not to have that choice curtailed by somebody else.
Now at this point a sceptic might say: that's all very well, but doesn't the judgement always go one way? Don't you always end up siding with freedom of expression rather than with those who believe that you’re about to go too far?
The answer is no. Last autumn, for instance, we decided not to show an animated comedy commissioned for BBC THREE called Popetown.
Like Springer, Popetown had provoked extensive anxiety – this time principally among Catholics – both about the risk of blasphemy and more broadly about the likelihood that the comic depiction of the Pope, the Vatican and other aspects of Catholicism would give grave offence to many ordinary Catholics.
Popetown went through exactly the same procedures as Springer.
In the same way, we considered the benefit of showing the programme – supporting the right of those who made it to express themselves and, as I've said, more importantly the right of public to have the opportunity to watch it – and we looked at the disbenefit – the likely or certain offence that some licence-payers would feel, not only because they were likely to watch the programme, but also simply because the BBC had decided to show it.
The quality of a programme is key in this judgement. Unlike Springer, Popetown was not an established critical triumph.
That wouldn't matter in itself: every day we judge the quality of untransmitted, freshly commissioned programmes and we should back our judgement in these cases just as much as in the case of established successes.
But, although Popetown had a lot of comic energy and verve and involved some outstanding talent, we concluded that it hadn't come off creatively in every respect – that's not unusual, by the way, for a new comedy.
The characterisation of the Pope and the Vatican were fantastical and absurd and we felt that few people who watched the programme would believe they were in any serious way connected to the real Pope and real Vatican.
But the depiction of some Catholic and Christian religious and sacramental symbols, in particular the crucifix and the eucharist, really was likely to offend.
Now in an open society I think there should be a strong presumption towards publication, but that presumption cannot be absolute.
In the case of Popetown we decided that the disbenefits of broadcast outweighed the benefits and so, despite having spent more than two million pounds on it, we withdrew it.
The decision provoked an immediate outcry from some prominent secularists.
In an article headlined 'Flaws of Faith', David Aaronovitch argued in the Observer that 'as religion insinuates its way into public life, secularists must unite to fight hellfire with logic. You can't even insult Catholicism any more'.
David, in other words, interpreted the decision as part of a worrying new trend in which the BBC and other cultural institutions seemed to be caving in far more than in the past to pressure and complaints from various religious lobbies.
It was time, he argued, that secularists stood up for their beliefs – and, by implication at least, that they also started to put public pressure on the BBC to stand firm against religious pressure.
A few weeks later, members of the Sikh community in Birmingham succeeded in closing down a play, Behtzi, which featured a rape in a Sikh temple.
This again prompted extensive debate, some of which quoted the example of Popetown, about whether secular freedoms were being endangered by religious intimidation.
It was in this climate, of growing secular anxiety but also perhaps of a growing sense after Behtzi and Popetown that loud religious campaigns against objectionable material could succeed; it was in this climate that the decision about Jerry Springer was taken.
From the point of view of the protesters, could Christians achieve what the Sikhs had succeeded in doing in Birmingham?
Or had a de facto prejudice crept in, in which the majority faith was not granted the same protection and the same privileges as minority ones?
Even to prove that might give some of the protesters a grim sense of satisfaction.
From a secular perspective, would the rot continue – would the BBC simply panic and fail to stand up for the public's right to see, not some outlandish experimental work, but a piece of mainstream popular culture?
How many tides
One of our radio producers, Anthony Pitts, resigned over our decision to show Springer.
Before he did so, he said to me sadly: 'this is such an opportunity, such a wasted opportunity, to turn back the tide'.
Now there will be many who sympathise with that notion of turning back the tide.
But as I've tried to make clear this evening, in truth people detect many different tides: a tide towards ever greater permissiveness; a tide towards censorship; a tide of favouritism towards multiculturalism and against Christian belief; a tide of majority intolerance towards minorities.
It feels like a world of eddies and confused under-currents rather than of a single tide which – single-handedly? Like Canute with one wave of our sceptre? – the BBC might hope to reverse.
Accordingly, different people took sharply different views of the Springer debate.
Britain's moral pessimists and cultural pessimists often appear to make common cause on issues like perceived falling standards and 'dumbing down', but on the issue of Jerry Springer they were divided.
Conservative newspapers and commentators seemed torn between libertarian and traditionalist moral agendas.
But the most important thing I can emphasise tonight is that none of this significantly influenced our decision-making process on Springer one way or the other.
As I noted, David Aaronovitch and others seemed to read one trend in our decision not to air Popetown.
Other people read a different, and presumably opposite, trend in our judgement that we should broadcast Springer. All of them miss the point.
What we tried to do was to judge each case solely on its merits in the context of editorial guidelines and experience which has been built up over many years.
Of course we should take account of changing audience expectations and also of the kind of specific concerns which complainants had raised about both programmes prior to transmission.
But our duty is not to be swayed by short-run moral panics or claims about this trend or that trend but rather to consider the issues around broadcast as objectively and dispassionately as we can.
The Springer decision
With all that in mind, let's consider the Springer decision in more detail.
The programme was an exact record of the stage version of the show with nothing added or taken away.
Although a controversial piece which would certainly not be to everyone's taste, we judged that it passed the quality test: many people believed it was an original and outstanding work which, although irreverent and often very funny, had a serious and arguably moral point to make about the world of the Jerry Springer television show.
Many had seen it on stage, but many more who would have liked to have seen it had not been able to. These were some of the powerful arguments in favour of broadcast.
Against this, in addition to the law, there were issues of taste, decency and offence.
Two objections, both of which had been raised by complainants in the weeks leading up to the transmission, were sometimes talked about it as if they were a single objection, and I accept that they are to some extent interrelated, but I think it makes for clarity to consider them separately.
The first objection is that the programme would offend against taste or decency, mainly because of the very large number of swear words it contained but also because of some of its sexual themes.
The second is that, in its depiction of holy figures from the Christian religion, the programme was blasphemous.
In the matter of bad language, the Daily Mail in particular had great fun multiplying what it claimed were the number of swear words in Jerry Springer by the entire number of the cast – because some of the words occurred in choruses rather than solos or duets – and arrived at a total of over 8,000, perhaps twenty or thirty times more than any sensible total you could reach.
And, in the case of Springer, the language did seem an intrinsic part of the piece, serving a purpose in reflecting the moral and linguistic poverty of the world inhabited by Jerry Springer and his guests; sung in operatic style, it contributed to the piece's surreal and original flavour; it certainly didn't feel gratuitous.
You have to warn viewers very carefully when a programme with language as strong as this is shown, but we felt that on BBC TWO at ten o'clock, and given that this was a piece of serious and demanding theatre, it was very unlikely to be watched by inappropriate or unaware viewers.
Blasphemy is a different and more complex matter. Some of the angriest emails and letters we got focused on what the complainants took to be the most grotesque forms of blasphemy: Jesus Christ depicted as a sexual deviant in a large nappy, singing that he feels 'a little bit gay' and so on.
But, for those who haven't seen the show either on stage or on TV, it's worth explaining what actually happens.
The first part of Jerry Springer shows the recording of the Jerry Springer daytime talk show with a typical collection of weird guests each with their own strange and delinquent story to tell.
At the end of act one, Jerry is shot by a jealous assistant and act two takes the form of a fantasy in which the dying Jerry imagines himself being dragged down to Hell where he is judged, condemned and possibly forgiven by God, the Devil, Jesus and so on.
But the characters in Jerry's febrile eschatology are themselves all recreations of the guests who appeared in act one.
The character called 'Jesus' is not in any sense intended to be a portrait of the historical Jesus of Nazareth nor of the Second Person of the Trinity; he's a palpably absurd figment based on one of the guests we saw in the first part of the show.
The play is a satire aimed not at Christianity but at what the authors take to be the valueless amorality of The Jerry Springer Show.
The second act explores the interior of the fictional Springer's mind – it was not a critique or attack on the Christian holy figures themselves.
One can accept that some Christians might find the mere mention of Jesus, Mary and God the Father in the tawdry context of Jerry Springer intrinsically offensive – and that offence was another serious factor for us to weigh up – but here the issue seems to be once again part of that argument about taste, decency and offence to public feeling rather than blasphemy itself.
Transmission and beyond
Over Christmas and the New Year, when most of the world was focused on the terrible aftermath of the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, the protests about the forthcoming transmission of Jerry Springer grew and grew.
The total number of phone calls and emails reached 50,000, although many seemed to have come from a small number of sources.
In any event, many people both in the UK and abroad registered their disquiet as they had every right to do.
A few people took things further: publishing the private telephone numbers and addresses of some of my colleagues; and in a few cases making threats both to BBC people and their families.
I do not believe that these extreme responses in any way invalidate the legitimacy of the majority of the complainants.
On the other hand, I do think the organisers of some of the protests, in particular Christian Voice, should reflect carefully on what happened.
Actions have consequences and even if you yourself do not intend to intimidate or threaten, publishing private phone numbers and addresses on the web may lead someone else to do just that.
The volume of protests was something we did take into consideration, because it showed the widespread strength of feeling.
But even if around 50,000 different people really had registered their disquiet, that number has to be considered alongside the 1.8 million who eventually chose to watch Jerry Springer and indeed the 25 million households we serve altogether.
Despite the protests, Roly Keating, Jana Bennett the Director of Television and I decided that the arguments favoured transmission.
We didn't believe that blasphemy in either a legal or a moral sense was at stake.
We believed we could present the programme in a way which would minimise the risk of it being watched by accident.
We recognised with regret that there would be people who would be profoundly offended by the fact that a public service broadcaster was showing such a programme to anyone.
But we thought that this offence was strongly outweighed by the benefit of giving the British public the chance to judge the programme for themselves.
After transmission, the volume and balance of emails, letters and phone calls shifted abruptly.
There were far fewer and they were much more evenly divided between complaints and messages of support and praise.
Would we have broadcast Jerry Springer if it had featured religious figures from one of the other great religions?
Literally hundreds of the letters and emails we received assured us that we would not.
In fact, I remember commissioning the Asian comedy programme Goodness Gracious Me a few years ago and receiving letters from Moslem, Sikh and Hindu religious leaders each complaining about the treatment of their religion and each certain that we would not dare make similar jokes about other faiths.
In the UK minority religions are often closely associated with visible ethnic minorities who may already feel isolated and vulnerable to prejudice and worse: these are additional valid factors for broadcasters to consider when they decide whether to broadcast something sensitive about one of these religions.
And yet here, as in the case of Goodness Gracious Me, the arguments in favour of publication and the freedom to choose can be very powerful.
People have asked me whether we would broadcast Bezhti – or the Satanic Verses for that matter.
The right answer, I think, is the boring one: we should consider each case on its merits when it arises.
A coming storm?
The debate about Springer isn't over of course.
The BBC Governors have yet to give their verdict on the broadcast and the protests. Ofcom too will consider it.
Last week one Christian group began the process of seeking a judicial review of the BBC, not interestingly on the grounds of blasphemy as such, but claiming rather that the BBC had broken its obligations on taste and decency in its Charter and Agreement and broken the protections given in the Human Rights Convention to freedom of religion. The High Court will consider the case in due course.
And the decision to broadcast Springer has already been debated once in Parliament.
People sometimes argue that the BBC is unaccountable for its actions: yet it's hard to think of any other public body whose decisions are open to such multiple, relentless scrutiny.
What are the wider ramifications of the Springer story?
The human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson recently wrote a piece in the Evening Standard attacking the Government's proposed legislation against incitement to religious hatred.
Accepting that curbs on freedom of speech can be justified to prevent the spread of hatred in the context of race, he went on: 'but religion is an entirely different matter: it involves by its very nature, the choice of a set of debatable beliefs which should be no more immune from criticism than the choice of political beliefs'.
Now I understand Geoffrey's concerns about the proposed legislation. But I think that this remark suggests a misunderstanding of what religion is.
Of course, religion can sometimes take the form of a debate about beliefs – there was a splendid recent example in Prospect magazine with A.C. Grayling and Keith Ward arguing about whether the tsunami undermined belief in an omnipotent, beneficent deity – but for millions of adherents to all the world's great religions, it often goes far deeper, to identity and sense of self in much the same way that ethnicity can do.
However, should religion enjoy the same level of protection and cause the same restriction of freedom of speech as race? No I don't believe it should.
But to me it is self-evident that in the real world it frequently raises passions and sensitivities far more profound than most of us ever feel about political matters.
It's right then that the BBC and other media outlets should consider the matter of religious offence very carefully.
It's worth remembering as well that, although it occasionally forgets this, the BBC is not here to promote a secular worldview as opposed to a religious one, or so-called progressive values over traditional ones but rather to give voice and space to a full range of perspectives.
In my view we have plenty more to do to reflect religion positively on our airwaves – particularly Christianity where, despite some real advances in recent years, there is still something of a creative deficit.
The BBC's coverage of the UK's minority faiths is much richer and more interesting than it used to be, but we live in a country where more than 70% of the population describe themselves as Christian.
There is more we could do to connect with them – especially those who align themselves with Christianity yet are not regular churchgoers.
Sometimes in the past, the BBC has been tempted to divide the world into practising Christians, agnostics and people of 'vague faith'.
In fact we live in a country of millions of people of 'vague Christianity' and we need to find ways of serving them too.
So, I am in favour both of proper sensitivity to all the UK's major religions and of fresh efforts positively to re-engage with the reality of Christianity in this country, recognising that one of the unwanted consequences of the Springer debacle is that some Christians may feel that the BBC has in some way turned its back on them.
That isn't true – but I recognise that we need to work to re-connect with them.
Yet we must also stand up strongly for the BBC's right and duty to remain a public space in which the widest range of ideas and creativity can be shared by the public.
This is the point of the BBC. This is why showing Jerry Springer was, in my view, both right and important.
And I do believe that this openness, along with the wider openness of our whole society, is under threat.
The voices of those who would wish to limit it seem to be getting more strident.
Small pressure groups can use the internet, emails and other modern communications tools to give a false impression of size and weight.
There is sometimes a sense of competitive victimhood, especially in the matter of religion – they achieved that, why can't we achieve this? Rage and extremism seem somehow closer to the surface.
So at the BBC we expect to be tested again, perhaps with greater frequency and intensity.
Our guidelines and our editorial principles are painstaking and probably to most people rather dull, but we have to stand behind them with courtesy and sensitivity but also with conviction and muscularity.
Openness and tolerance are critical virtues too and they too need to be defended.
I don't think we'd ever claim to be Dürer's resolute knight, but there may well be more occasions when a touch of body armour wouldn't go amiss.