Jerry Springer: will you be watching?

by Stephen Tall on January 8, 2005

Tonight at 10 pm you have a choice of two programmes. You can either tune into “a highly offensive and continuous stream of obscene language, profanity and blasphemy as well as some exhibitions of debauched behaviour.”§ Or you can view a “musical with a touch of genius about it”†, which has won 14 major awards, including six Oliviers. And, the best thing is, you can watch both at the same time.

I am, of course, talking about ‘Jerry Springer – The Opera’, which BBC2 is broadcasting live in a few hours’ time. To date, the BBC has logged 45,000 complaints. The broadcasting regulator OfCom reports 7,361 complaints. We can safely say there have been a lot of complaints (the publicity from which should double its audience). So why has so much opprobrium been heaped upon it?

There are two reasons. The first is the swear word quotient. Lobby group MediaWatch UK, which has taken up Mary Whitehouse’s cudgels, claims there are some 8,000 examples of offensive language (though only by a massaging of figures of which Enron would be proud). The Daily Telegraph’s official count is 451. But – give or take 7,549 – I imagine MediaWatch would maintain there are still too many.

The question for MediaWatch, and those who support its campaign, is this: how many swear words do you believe the BBC should be able to broadcast before you protest? Will you phone up or write in every time you hear crude language in a programme? If not, where do you draw the line? Is it five, 10, 50, or 100 obscenities? Is there a ‘tipping point’, beyond which the nation’s morality will be corrupted irrevocably? (The Telegraph journalists whose job it was to audit ‘Jerry Springer’ seem, mercifully, to have emerged unscathed from their experience, you will be relieved to hear.)

Censorship is always a flawed exercise precisely because any system which attempts to be quantitative lays itself open to ridicule, with swear words attaining a bizarre black market value (“you can have five ‘b’s and two ‘f’s, or three ‘b’s and one ‘c’ but no ‘f’s”). While any system which attempts to be qualitative is doomed to subjective inconsistencies which aggravate everyone, both guardians of taste and decency, and defenders of artistic freedom.

The second ground for objection is the show’s alleged blasphemy. I’ve not seen the show so can pass no comment. Nor have MediaWatch, of course, though they feel no such compunction. One who has, and dismisses the charge (“there is nothing in this which I believe to be blasphemous”), is BBC Director-General, Mark Thompson, a self-professedly devout Christian and alumnus of Stonyhurst College, a Roman Catholic boarding school.

In 1979, the Monty Python team’s ‘Life Of Brian’ aroused similar protests. Film censors the BBFC gave the movie an AA certificate (equivalent to a ’15’ today), but 28 local authorities made it an X (’18’), while 11 banned it. Today the fuss generated by a film now widely regarded as (at worst) irreverent seems almost quaint, with Python star Michael Palin a beloved mainstay of Sunday night television. Twenty-five years from now, perhaps this week’s outrage will be viewed with similar bemusement?

This latest storm is symptomatic of a much wider assault on the principles underpinning free speech. Only last month, Birmingham Repertory Theatre felt compelled to cancel its performances of ‘Behzti’ following violent protests by some Sikh extremists. Indeed, it is fascinating to contrast the staunch support of artistic freedom of expression mounted by the right-wing press in defence of a black comedy depicting rape and murder in a Sikh temple with their knee-jerk condemnation of the BBC for broadcasting a sweary musical parodying trashy telly.

The last thing our society needs is more censorship. Governments too often seek to regulate individuals’ behaviour through bans, whether it’s fox-hunting or smoking in public places. Doubtless life would be a lot simpler, a lot neater, if everyone believed in the same things and acted in the same ways. It would also be a lot more dull.

We should all welcome thought-provoking, boundary-breaking, envelope-pushing art – not because we will necessarily like it, but because it will stimulate our perceptions of human experience. We may respond to it, we may react against it: its point is to inspire us to think broader, to think deeper.

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§ John Beyer, MediaWatch UK
† Charles Spencer, The Daily Telegraph