All eyes on Brass Eye

Love it or hate it - but show it.

Rob Lyons

Topics Culture

Was Channel 4’s Brass Eye Special on paedophilia ‘the sickest TV show ever’ – as the UK Daily Mail put it – or an outstanding example of using satire to provoke discussion about a difficult issue, as the programme’s defenders have argued?

In fact, it was neither. But Channel 4 was absolutely right to screen Chris Morris’ programme on 26 July 2001, and the discussion that has raged since then shows the consequences of free speech – particularly on an issue such as this – are entirely positive. Whatever you thought about the show itself, the reaction to it shows that we need more such provocative programming, not less.

For those who didn’t see it, Brass Eye Special was a Crimewatch-style spoof in which a nationwide appeal was launched to move millions of children into stadiums across Britain for their own protection from a notorious paedophile, due for release – while a mob waited for him outside prison, eventually capturing him and setting him on fire.

In between, there were sketches about an Eminem-style rapper singing paedophile lyrics and a comedy bus tour given by a former sex offender. The ‘presenter’ showed his own son to a paedophile and demanded to know if he fancied the boy. A host of celebrities were filmed making statements supposedly in support of child protection charities, which anybody with half a brain would realise were utterly stupid (1).

The reaction to the programme was exactly what Morris would have hoped for. The tabloid press, whose own paedophile panics formed the butt of Brass Eye’s jokes, have been loudly outraged; as have the tricked celebrities. Bubbly TV presenter Kate Thornton, who, along with others, had been duped into making statements about the dangers of a children’s video game in which paedophiles could touch children’s bodies pressed against the screen using special gloves, said she feared it would put celebrities off from speaking up for good causes (2). (One can only hope it will make celebrities exercise a few more of their critical faculties in future.)

Most telling of all has been the reaction of the ministers. Child protection minister Beverley Hughes called the show ‘unspeakably sick’; culture secretary Tessa Jowell is looking into increasing the powers of the Independent Television Commission (ITC) to respond quickly to complaints, following Channel 4’s decision to repeat the program the following night (3).

All in all, the response to Morris’ show demonstrated quite neatly all the things he set out to satirise.

But this same response also brought a wave of support for Morris, the programme, and the issues it raised. Among the broadsheet press, columnists from left to right have pointed to the importance of the issues raised in Morris’ show, from the often-hysterical debate over paedophiles to the gullibility of journalists and celebrities, and the dangers in calling for such programmes to be banned, or spiked by cowardly TV chiefs. And while some of the viewing public no doubt did turn their televisions off in horror, Channel 4 claimed that the number of viewers calling to congratulate Channel 4 about its controversial Brass Eye programme has dramatically outweighed the complaints (4).

In our censorious times, it is refreshing that, when confronted with shocked politicians and commentators holding ‘You can’t say that!’ sermons, other public figures will retort, equally loudly, ‘We can – and we should’. But the row is far from over.

That government politicians were so quick to condemn the programme and raise doubts about Channel 4’s wisdom in showing it indicates how far the knee-jerk ‘ban it’ mentality persists within this government. Yet as Downing Street rushes in with reassurances that it is not calling for censorship, a more insidious process is at play. ‘We are not talking about censorship’, said a Downing Street spokesperson. ‘We are not talking about the government dictating what should or shouldn’t be broadcast.’ (5)

What Downing Street is talking about is the need for TV to regulate itself more conservatively, through bodies like the ITC. Clearly, if TV played safe enough, there would be no need for the government to get involved. But is that free speech? Would that kind of TV be worth watching? And the fact that the tabloid press has rushed in to condemn Channel 4 for showing the programme is also worrying. Here we have the media calling for restrictions and self-imposed censorship on other aspects of the media – as if the media had no common interest in defending free speech.

On the other side, the programme’s defenders were not so robust as they could have been.
‘Television at its best has a real sense of social purpose and provoking debate can be unnerving but ultimately necessary’, wrote Channel 4 head Michael Jackson in the UK Observer. ‘The media reaction to Brass Eye indicates that it is a paternalistic media that suggest the boundaries of what should and should not be discussed.’ (6)

Jackson’s points are very true – but Channel 4 exemplified this very paternalism by pulling the show from its original transmission date a few weeks ago because of the disappearance of schoolgirl Danielle Jones, and cancelling a rerun on E4, its satellite entertainment offshoot. And Channel 4 has always had an uneasy relationship with Chris Morris, delaying transmission of the original Brass Eye series for months and then cutting scenes from it.

Channel 4 should be congratulated for its nerve in showing the programme, knowing what the fallout could be. But it should be careful about getting too defensive. Why should the question of showing a comedy programme need to be justified in terms of some ‘social purpose’? While the bulk of Brass Eye was an accurate satire of the media guff about paedophilia, some of it was just black humour, plain and simple. Bad taste can be funny too, and it needs no other justification than that.

Underlying all the arguments that Morris’ programme should not have been shown is the dangerous assumption that most people are too moronic to separate a joke from reality, and that ministers and tabloid editors know what is best for us. The reaction that has greeted the programme in fact shows the benefits of trusting people to make their own minds up. If I laugh louder because part of me thinks I shouldn’t be laughing at all, doesn’t that show that the programme has achieved its aim?

For those who don’t like Brass Eye, don’t watch it – but don’t tell me what I can and cannot watch.

Read on:

Chris Morris – that old fogey, by Patrick West

Brass Eye: reaching satire’s gold standard?, by Ian Walker

Spit back in anger, by Dolan Cummings

spiked-issue: Free speech

spiked-issue: TV

(1) For some of the highlights, read Brass Eye: highlights of the show, Guardian, 27 July 2001

(2) For some transcripts from the first series see Glebe’s Thrift Funnel

(3) See TV spoof to bring tougher regulation, Guardian, 30 July 2001

(4) Thousands call in to praise C4 over Brass Eye, Guardian, July 30 2001

(5) No 10 acts to calm Brass Eye row, Guardian 30 July 2001

(6) The fourth way, Observer, 29 July 2001

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Culture


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