Brass Eye: the regulators’ blind spot

The Brass Eye judgement shows that TV regulators support the right of satire to shock and offend - except when it does.

Dolan Cummings

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Warning: the following article contains scenes that may shock and offend some people. Expect nudity and foul language from the outset. (Disclaimer: this article does not contain scenes that could shock or offend anybody. The warning has been included for satirical effect and should not be taken seriously.)

I used to work at the BBC, where a log of viewers’ complaints is posted on the intranet every morning for the amusement of the staff. The complaints were mostly about the mispronunciation of Welsh placenames, but occasionally somebody would brighten our coffee breaks by protesting about ‘questions of taste and decency’.

Much of Britain was united in mirth at the end of July 2001 when the government got overexcited about a Brass Eye Special on Channel 4, a spoof documentary satirising the media’s treatment of paedophilia. Several ministers publicly condemned this ‘unspeakably sick’ programme without even having seen it, and got into an embarrassing squabble about censorship. Unsurprisingly, the government has since proposed to let broadcasters regulate themselves on such sensitive matters.

In the meantime, responsibility rests with statutory bodies. Brass Eye has now been told off by two separate entities, the Independent Television Commission (ITC) and the Broadcasting Standards Commission (BSC). Intriguingly, both have gone out of their way to stress that, unlike Downing Street, they recognise the value of satire, and indeed the importance of tackling difficult subjects like paedophilia.

The ITC affirmed its belief in Channel 4’s right to produce ‘challenging, original and sometimes disturbing material’ (1), while the BSC acknowledged that ‘satire will often only achieve its purpose by shocking and offending some people’ (2). So what’s the problem? Take your pick.

The ITC has ruled that ‘the combination of the scheduling (just after Big Brother), warning and opening scenes taken together resulted in an unnecessary degree of offence to many people who had not been adequately prepared for what was to follow’ (3). Accordingly, it has directed Channel 4 to broadcast an apology. So, apparently it is all right to shock and disturb people as long as you warn them first.

The ITC complains that the run-in to the programme, and indeed the warning, could have led viewers to expect a documentary. Well, here is the news (this is not really the news): Brass Eye is a spoof documentary. It is supposed to look and sound like a documentary, the better to ridicule the format. It is all very well to bleat on about the value of satire in principle, but if broadcasters are forced to apologise for getting into the spirit of things, what is the point?

Funnily enough, the BSC decided that Channel 4’s scheduling and run-in was all right. Its complaint is more nebulous. The commission’s chair Lord Dubs of Battersea (no, really) explains, ‘While there are no absolute no-go areas for satire it does not have an unlimited license. On balance, the commission felt that the portrayal of children in the programme went too far’. Leaving aside the peculiar phrasing, this is a familiar ‘yes, but’ response, which recalls the government statement about ‘the limits of satire’.

Satire is OK, and even satire dealing with paedophilia is OK, except that it isn’t. Specifically, the BSC is concerned about the distress caused to viewers by images of children in a sexual context. Probably the most talked about scene in this regard was that in which Chris Morris brought a young boy in front of a ‘paedophile’ and demanded, ‘Do you want to have sex with my son?’.

Now, everybody acknowledges that the child actors were treated with appropriate care, and it was obvious to me at least that the scene had been shot in such a way that the boy had not heard the line. If some viewers were distressed by the illusion, that is just the kind of hypersensitivity that Brass Eye was satirising, and it’s a bit rich of the BSC to complain about it while affirming the right to shock and offend.

On the face of it, shifting responsibility for taste and decency on to the broadcasters themselves sounds like a step forward. Channel 4 has held the line well throughout the controversy and chief executive Michael Jackson has declared that he would not hesitate to transmit such a programme again. Following the ITC and BSC findings, however, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has issued the ominous statement: ‘No doubt broadcasters will pay heed to their decision and its implications.’ (4) No doubt.

In the meantime, we look forward to Channel 4’s apology, a brilliant opportunity for a piece of satire that will shock, disturb and offend – qualities we all agree are so important for our culture.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

All eyes on Brass Eye, by Rob Lyons

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) ITC press release, 6 September 2001

(2) Broadcasting Standards Commission’s finding, 6 September 2001

(3) ITC press release, 6 September 2001

(4) Quoted in Broadcasters warned over Brass Eye, Guardian, 6 September 2001

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

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