TV UK, 24 February

Dispatches: Defend the Right to Blaspheme?

Dolan Cummings

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Dispatches (Channel 4 on Monday) explored the conflict between freedom of expression and religious sensibilities in the aftermath of the Behzti and Jerry Springer the Opera controversies in recent months.

Home office minister Fiona McTaggart responded to criticisms of her notorious Today programme performance in December (1), in which she had equated the demonstrations that shut down Behzti with the play itself, and managed only to add insult to injury by acknowledging that writers and artists are very precious about ‘words’ and that sort of thing. Meanwhile National Theatre director Nicholas Hytner made another robust defence of theatre’s right to offend, and branded McTaggart’s position ‘pathetic’.

The best moment came when Stewart Lee, co-writer of Jerry Springer the Opera, was challenged on a particularly offensive line which suggested Mary mother of Jesus had been ‘raped by an angel’. No doubt this could be interpreted as blasphemous, but no more so, surely, than the interviewer’s bizarre suggestion that the encounter had been ‘entirely consensual’. Lee rose to the occasion, and with a completely straight face, explained that the power differentials between a 13-year-old girl and an angel sent by God were such that intercourse could never be consensual. It was like a rock star exploiting a groupie, he added.

The comic brilliance of this response was in applying contemporary, secular notions of consent and responsibility to a two-millennia-old story of supernatural intervention in the world. We all understand that this is foolish; it is manifestly absurd, and to take offence at such a joke, or the show itself, on the basis of religious belief is equally absurd. Indeed, the Christians who did object to the show came across as clownish and, to be frank, weird. And while non-Asian observers tend to accept uncritically the idea that ‘the Sikh community’ was outraged by Behzti, perhaps we should entertain similar suspicions about the individuals who led those protests (whatever the motivations of the young men who joined in).

Several contributors to the programme repeated the notion that unless you hold strong religious beliefs, you can’t imagine how offended the faithful are by blasphemy, and this much seemed to be conceded by the programme-makers and held up as a problem for supporters of free expression. I don’t buy it. As the dictum goes, ‘Nothing human is alien to me’, and I am quite able to sympathise with all sorts of beliefs, and equally to recognise bad faith when I see it. If some people enjoy being offended, good for them, but there’s no reason for the rest of us to concede an inch when it comes to freedom of expression.

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV

(1) Curtains for free speech, by Dolan Cummings

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