Bringing blasphemy back from the dead
As the pope arrives in Britain, the Advertising Standards Authority bans an anti-Catholic advert. Where are the protests?
‘The big beef we have with the Advertising Standards Authority is: who the fuck are they? Who is this shady cabal of people making moral judgements about our advertising? What authority do they have?’
This defiant message comes not from any well-known defender of people’s freedom, but from a spokesman for a UK-based ice-cream company, who was talking exclusively to spiked.
Recently, Antonio Federici ice-cream company produced an advert that featured a picture of a pregnant nun with a tub of ice-cream, beneath which it said ‘Immaculate Conception’. This mischievous, cheeky little ad appeared in magazines such as Grazia and Lady. And that, you would have thought, would have been that: some people might have laughed, some might have ignored it, others might have felt hungry. But that wasn’t the end of it. Unfortunately for Antonio Federici, eight readers got into a right raspberry ripple about the ad and decided to complain to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). Clearly delighted at having something illiberal to do, the ASA took up arms against Antonio Federici on behalf of the Courageous Eight and, yesterday, banned the advert.
Now, in a hilarious PR move, Antonio Federici plans to display a new advertising image on billboards along the proposed route of the pope’s cavalcade around Westminster Cathedral – though the spokesman won’t reveal to me what the image depicts. So thanks to the ASA’s heavy-handed intervention on behalf of Disgusted of St Mary’s Tunbridge Wells, a boutique ice-cream company is now set to be an unwitting avant-garde force for irritating the pope. ‘[The orginal ad] wasn’t done to coincide with the pope’s visit’, explains the spokesman. ‘The ASA just decided to ban it before the pope’s visit. We haven’t contrived the situation – it was all down to the ASA.’
The Antonio Federici advert
The ASA showed an interpretative prowess to rival the Medieval Scholastics when explaining its original decision to ban the ice-cream ad: ‘We considered the use of a nun pregnant through immaculate conception was likely to be seen as a distortion and mockery of the beliefs of Roman Catholics.’ The very busy body then concluded ‘that to use such an image in a lighthearted way to advertise ice-cream was likely to cause serious offence to readers, particularly those who practised the Roman Catholic faith’. Which isn’t strictly true: it didn’t cause offence to readers generally; it caused offence to eight specific readers – readers, it seems, who have far too much time on their hands and green ink on their tables.
Talking to Antonio Federici’s spokesman, it became clear to me that his company’s objection to the ASA was not just down to its decision to ban the ad. It was more principled than that, concerning the company’s freedom to advertise its products as it sees fit. ‘We had the Chartered Association of Advertising Practitioners on the phone the other night’, he tells me. ‘They said that if we’re going to run any more advertising, there’s a helpline we can call, which made them sound like the Samaritans. But we don’t want their help, we don’t want their advice, we don’t want their opinions – all we want is the freedom of speech to reflect a certain issue. It could be about war, or it could be about, in this case, religion.’
He’s actually right: advertising is a free speech issue. To say ‘you can’t say that’ in an advert – to say that mocking Roman Catholicism, no matter how tongue-in-cheek, is not suitable advertising content – is as censorious as excluding a work of art from an exhibition. ‘If you ban our ad’, Antonio Federici’s spokesman told spiked, ‘you might as well ban any controversial story about the church – that’s the logical conclusion’.
The great irony here is that while the abolition of blasphemy laws was widely celebrated across the liberal media, few complain about blasphemy’s resuscitation in the form of the quangos like the ASA or Ofcom. At the time of the abolition of the blasphemy laws in 2008, Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, announced: ‘It is disgraceful that such a relic of religious savagery has survived into the twenty-first century.’ Indeed. But why so quiet about its resurrected form?
In some ways, the new blasphemy is far more pernicious, far more authoritarian than its musty predecessor. With the cassocked version, there were definite objects that were ruled off limits, specific things that were beyond even the faintest criticism – deeply objectionable and illiberal, yes, but at least one knew where one stood in relation to the sacred and which images and words were not to be taken in vain. You couldn’t mock the Holy Scriptures. You couldn’t ridicule the Christian deity. And you certainly couldn’t feature a pregnant nun eating ice-cream with the strapline ‘Immaculate Conception’.
But in the secular, suit-and-tie garb of the likes of the ASA and Ofcom, the resurrected blasphemy is far more fluid – and as a result, far more dangerous. Now you don’t know where lines have been drawn and you don’t know what might be viewed as blasphemous. At least not until the decision has been taken to ban your ad.
This is because the sacred here is not defined by doctrine, religious or otherwise – rather it is defined subjectively, by people’s feelings. Where old-fashioned blasphemy declined with the ebb of centralised Christian authority, its new, snazzy version has proliferated with the rise in authority of individuals’ feelings. It is not a matter of outlawing blasphemy against a definite notion of the sacred; it’s about outlawing blasphemy against anything deemed by any individual to be sacred. The measure of whether something is sacred these days is people’s own feelings of hurt. So there are as many potentially sacred realms as there are people with feelings to be blasphemed.
Of course, it’s not called blasphemy any more; it’s called offence. But the logic of offence, and its ruinous effect on people’s freedom, is more than comparable to the old idea of blasphemy. To claim that an advert or a TV programme or a radio show has offended one’s feelings is all that is necessary today to bring down the censorious powers of the secular quangocracy upon some sinning publisher or corporation.
Thankfully, on the eve of the pope’s visit, planning some mysterious advertising stunt, the people at Antonio Federici ice-cream makers remain unrepentant. The spokesman tells me: ‘I guess I come from the Father Ted school of advertising – arse, feck, gay priests, pregnant nuns.’ Amen to that.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
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