The Jerry Springer Opera goes ahead

We’ve all no doubt heard a lot in the media recently about the Jerry Springer Opera that the BBC will be showing this evening despite a deluge of complaints from Christians. I thought I would add a few thoughts of my own to the the debate:

1. Everyone has standards of taste and decency

Many people have been angered that Christians should attempt to stop them watching something that they would genuinely enjoy and not feel at all offended by. But all of us surely have some standards that we would expect the BBC (or in fact any broadcaster) to adhere to. For example, which of the following things would you be happy to see broadcast on BBC2? The list includes some topics that I have heard debated recently on BBC radio.

  • The video of the beheading of Kenneth Bigley
  • A performance of a homophobic hate rap
  • An evangelistic sermon warning that all who don’t accept Jesus will face Hell
  • An anti-Semitic comedy
  • A Creation-Science documentary rejecting evolution as fraudulent and bad science.
  • A hard-core pornographic film

It should also be apparent as you consider this list that the idea that you have to first see something to have an opinion on whether it is suitable for public broadcast is ridiculous. As long as you have reliable information on the contents, then that is enough to allow an informed decision.

2. This program is merely one example of a broadcast that causes offence to Christians.

There are a number of different things that can cause offence to Christians:

  • Blasphemy – particularly the use of the names of God or Jesus as curses, or representing them in degrading or mocking ways.
  • Foul and obscene language, gratuitous violence and explicit sexual content.
  • Misrepresentation or mockery of Christian belief and Christians themselves. (Often by the means of vilifying or belittling those characters who represent them in dramas or comedies)
  • Promotion of ethics and philosophies that are in direct opposition to those of Christianity. (This can include all sorts of things from the encouraging sex outside of marriage to denying the existence of God).

This list is no secret – the BBC schedulers and the Opera’s script writers will have easily deduced that this program would be particularly liable to offend Christians. The BBC’s claim that “the target of the opera’s critique is not Christianity or religious belief” seems either extraordinarily naïve or wilfully ignorant. But let us not pretend that if this one program is not shown that all is now well. It is clear that a large amount of existing broadcast material will offend Christians in some way, even if it is not as repugnant to watch as this particular program.

And let us also readily admit that the church is not, and should not be above criticism. It is one thing to want to avoid hearing blasphemy (which is directed at God), but we should be willing to hear the complaints and accusations of an unbelieving world. The trouble is, it is extremely rare that the opportunity is given for Christians to respond with advocacy of Christian beliefs and ethics. If the BBC could be seen to be giving evangelical Christians a genuine opportunity to speak out, then perhaps the level of complaints would not have been so high for the Jerry Springer Opera.

3. Television shapes thinking and attitudes

In many ways, television is the ultimate propaganda tool. Watching a comedy or drama is not like going to church and hearing a sermon, or hearing a government minister set out his vision of a better society. In the latter cases, we know we are hearing an advocacy of a point of view and we critically evaluate it, but when we are being “entertained” by the television we are often also being educated without necessarily realising it. We are being taught what types of people to laugh at and despise, and what types of people to admire and emulate simply by the way they are portrayed in these programs.

So when people ask “Why don’t you simply not watch it?” they are missing the point. Of course those who complained were not planning to watch it. What they were more concerned about was the type of attitudes it encouraged in its viewers, in particular to derive entertainment from the mocking of God. It is certain that a good number of school children will be watching this (its on at 10 o’clock on a Saturday night), and its humour and language will be repeated round school playgrounds and workplaces around the country in weeks to come.

An analogy may prove helpful here. Imagine an astoundingly insensitive television channel broadcasting a comedy this evening which made a joke of people dying in a tsunami. There would be outrage. The relatives of the dead would consider it insulting and disrespectful. It would hardly matter that they were not going to watch it, or that the target audience were people who weren’t affected by the tragedy.

4. Paying customers have a right to complain

The BBC claims that “We are sensitive to matters of faith and religion in broadcasting”. If this is indeed true then they have no right to criticise license payers for informing them that their broadcasts have caused offence. Upsetting a large portion of your customers is a bad move for every business, but one that monopolies often feel they can get away with. In the UK you choose to pay your license fee to the BBC or you choose to watch no television whatsoever. The BBC apparently feels free to show what it wants because its position is so secure.

But of course, the BBC’s customers include not only Christians but people of many other world views. They have a right to be heard too. But if in this case the BBC is catering to those who enjoy a bit of anti-religious sentiment in their comedy, where is the corresponding programming for Christian viewers which allows Christians in their own (and hopefully more dignified) way to issue challenges of their own to the prevailing attitudes and beliefs of society?

5. “Freedom of expression is both a right and a responsibility”

This point is one made by the BBC themselves in their stock email response to complaints and it is a good one. If people are to be free to say what they want, then they must also be willing to accept their responsibility to be respectful of the feelings and opinions others.

As it happens, this particular program is hardly an issue of freedom of expression as the BBC is not obligated to broadcast any and every item that is made available on film. People can watch this at theatres and I presume that DVDs are available (or will be soon).

The email goes on to say that BBC2 “is there to present challenging work of all sorts”. I wonder if that would include the challenge of the gospel, or would they consider that to be taking “freedom of expression” too far.

I did email the BBC to inform them that I am disappointed with their decision to broadcast the program, but I did not tell them I wanted them to cancel it. Rather, I hope that the result of this controversy will be a more respectful attitude from the BBC towards Christian feelings, not just in deciding what not to show, but actively seeking to find more programs that Christians can enjoy watching. Maybe we can look forward to some evangelistic preaching on BBC2 later this year. Or then again, maybe the BBC will pay a meagre fine to OFCOM and then comission some comedies about Christians who complain about broadcast standards.

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