Al-Jazeera: no laughing matter?

Why a private spoof video made by BBC staff for a colleague leaving for Al-Jazeera caused a media outcry.

Tessa Mayes

Topics Culture

When an assistant news editor at BBC London decided to move to rival news channel Al-Jazeera International in Qatar, his colleagues made a spoof video for his leaving party. The film – based on Tony Christie’s and Peter Kay’s 2005 hit Is This The Way to Amarillo? – shows BBC staff wearing tea towels and fake beards, dancing and singing ‘Is this the way to Al-Jazeeeera?’ in front of images from the Iraq war. A BBC insider who was angry that licence fees are being used to make a ‘tasteless’ skit that could cause offence to Muslims and relatives of the victims of the 9/11 and 7/7 bombings sent a copy to the London Evening Standard. The spoof has since been criticised as ‘tasteless’, a video that ‘should not have been made’ (1).

No doubt the BBC journalists themselves found the spoof hilarious. The funniest bit is a ‘Benny Hill moment’, showing speeded-up images of a car with far too many people than should reasonably fit into it. The passengers leap out of the car in fancy dress outfits. But overall the video didn’t exactly make my belly ache from laughter.

Yet the video is not being judged for its comic value. According to the Sun, ‘BBC bosses’ branded it ‘hideous and tasteless’ (2). Even though the video was not intended for broadcast, Andy Griffee, controller of BBC English Regions, said: ‘Having viewed the video, I believe it should not have been made and was completely ill-judged.’ (3) Nigel Evans, a Conservative MP and member of the Commons Media Select Committee, commented: ‘We just had the largest number of deaths over the shortest period of time in Iraq and Afganistan… Despite the fact that this video was meant as a joke, this is one of those things we can say is certainly no laughing matter.’ (4)

We live in confusing times when it comes to the freedom to joke. While comedy is an ever-increasing part of British culture – in 2004 BBC director general Mark Thompson even announced that comedy was one of several genres that would start replacing reality TV shows (5) – it seems only some subjects can be made fun of. In 2005, for instance, the BBC showed the satire on Christianity Jerry Springer the Opera, despite heated protests by religious groups. In the same year, Ricky Gervais’ BBC series Extras showed Kate Winslett (playing herself) criticising those who want to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive through films about the Second World War: ‘I don’t really think we need another film about the Holocaust…We get it, it was grim, move on.’

But when it comes to the new taboos, such as Muslims and contemporary risk culture, suddenly Britons are supposed to have a collective sense of humour failure and abide by new comedy sensitivity rules. This year, for instance, the reaction of the British press to the publication of 12 cartoons making fun of Islam in a Danish newspaper was to not print them. Meanwhile, newspaper readers in Germany and France could judge what they thought about the cartoons for themselves.

As Niall Crowley has argued elsewhere on spiked, today’s satirists shy away from contemporary taboos, for instance when it comes to children and paedophilia: ‘Making any kind of joke or light-hearted remark relating to children is tantamount to saying you have a bomb in your bag at an airport check-in. With the notable exception of Chris Morris’ Brass Eye Paedophile Special, which caused a storm in 2001, comedians steer well clear of this issue.’ (6)

But the BBC journalists behind the spoof are not comedians and they did not create the video for public viewing, so why should they have taken public sensitivities into account? Considering the BBC has blurred the boundaries of the private and public lives of their reporters, they have in many ways brought this scandal on themselves. Following the Hutton report in 2003, then director general Greg Dyke concluded that BBC News journalists could no longer write for newspapers. This implied that their job as news reporters should be judged on what they say in news broadcasts and newspaper columns, despite readers knowing that they’re written in a personal capacity.

Along with other news channels, the BBC has cultivated the notion that news reporters can connect with audiences by offering their personal reactions to events in news reports. The result is that the importance of reporters’ personal views is elevated and has changed news values (7). For example, BBC reporter Fergal Keane is famous for the emotional style of his reports, as exemplified in his coverage of the 2005 London bombings (8). Covering the spoof video story, even the Evening Standard’s reporter Alexa Baracaia added a personal view, writing ‘it is particularly embarrassing coming as the world remembers the 2001 terror attacks [in New York and Washington]’. Strangely, Baracaia’s article ends with the supposedly ‘embarrassing’ lyrics of the video published in full (9).

The shift in news values also leaves reporters open to criticism whenever they don’t act like saints in their private lives. Hence critics of the spoof video can argue that what reporters do privately can be used to judge the quality of their work in public. For example, Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab British Understanding, argued that the video was ‘not something that one would expect from an employee of a respectable news organisation like the BBC’. As if all internal work gags should be as balanced, impartial and true-to-reality as a news report, he added, ‘the idea of having open-necked shirts and medallions is absurd – Qataris are actually extremely well-dressed. There is an enduring stereotype that Arabs are sleazy. The region tends to be seen in terms of bombs and bullets – this is a completely one-dimensional view that is just not correct.’ (10)

Although winning a journalism award is not necessarily an indication of having objective news values, one of the journalists in the spoof video who appears bare-chested, dancing and wearing a skull cap, has won a Race In The Media award for his BBC reporting (11). Surely, we shouldn’t judge news reporters on whether they wear fancy dress in private or not?

Office life would be very boring without comedy sketches at leaving parties, viral emails and joke photos in internal magazines, however offensive to outsiders. Whatever our jobs are, we should be able to decide what we find funny for ourselves, without some kind of joke patrol squad telling us what we can and cannot laugh at.

To watch the not-so-funny spoof video and decide for yourself whether it’s a laughing matter, click here [Windows Media format].

Tessa Mayes is a journalist and author of the spiked-report Restraint or Revelation? Free speech and privacy in a confessional age.

(1) Outrage at BBC terror joke video, London Evening Standard, 11 September 2006; BBC Staff in bad-taste Middle East spoof, Daily Mail, 11 September 2006

(2) BBC Joke Film Quiz, Sun, 12 September 2006.

(3) BBC in bother over spoof Middle East video, London (Agence France-Presse), published on the Arab Media Watch website, 11 September 2006

(4) BBC Staff in bad-taste Middle East spoof, Daily Mail, 11 September 2006

(5) BBC to move away from reality TV – Thompson, The Stage, 31 August 2004

(6) That joke isn’t funny anymore, by Niall Crowley

(7) Submerging in Therapy News, Tessa Mayes, British Journalism Review, vol.11 no.4, 2000

(8) Blanket coverage from Therapy News, by Tessa Mayes

(9) See Outrage at BBC terror joke video, London Evening Standard, 11 September 2006

(10) BBC Staff in bad-taste Middle East spoof, Daily Mail, 11 September 2006

(11) Fury at BBC ‘Is this the way to Al-Jazeera’ spoof, Daily Express, 12 September 2006

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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