Jesus, save me from your followers

(Not all of them, of course; this post is about a minority of a minority: professional complainers and their tabloid allies.)

Life of Brian, The Last Temptation of Christ, Dogma, Bezhti… the list of fairly innocuous things targeted by outraged religious types (of all faiths) is a depressingly long one, with the BBC’s decision to broadcast Jerry Springer, The Opera as the most recent.

It’s impossible to watch TV without finding something offensive, no matter what your race, religion, sexuality, lifestyle, politics or belief system – if you’ve lost your sense of humour, a typical half-hour episode of Little Britain will offend you if you’re straight, gay, old, young, able-bodied, disabled, transgender, male, female… – but religious groups in the US and the UK now make it their *mission* to be offended. Once they do find something, the machine swings into action: press releases are written, tabloid newspapers recruited, and most importantly of all the grass-roots membership use the same form letters and emails to express their outrage at a programme they haven’t seen, have no intention of seeing and want to make damn sure that nobody else can see.

It’d help their credibility if they were right occasionally. Scorcese’s Last Temptation was so pious it put me to sleep, but while it didn’t do it for me it was a serious attempt to portray Jesus and the things he had to sacrifice; compare that to Mel Gibson’s Passion, two hours of torture porn that religous groups actively encouraged their followers to see – and yet if the same violence was used in any other film, those groups would be demanding its immediate ban. Dogma was pro-God and anti-idiocy, so of course it brought the idiots out in their droves; Life of Brian was an inspired piss-take of the quick to complain and slow to think, with predictable consequences. And of course, the other big TV controversy of recent years – the Brass Eye programme about paedophilia – lampooned tabloid and public hysteria, which meant it became the victim of tabloid and public hysteria.

Does Jerry Springer fit into that list? I’ve no idea and I couldn’t care less. I didn’t think it would offend me, but i didn’t think it would interest me either, so I didn’t watch it. There are more important things in the world to worry about than television programmes – although it’s clear that our professional campaigners disagree.

The trend is, as ever, most visible in the US where in 2003, 99.8% of complaints about “indecency” on television came from a single organisation, the Parents Television Council. It’s an immensely successful propaganda machine that monitors every frame of TV broadcasts between 8pm and 11pm every day, warning of potentially offensive content and alerting its members by email so they can complain about things they haven’t seen and won’t see. The number of complaints rose from 350 in 2001 to 240,000 in 2003, which means one of two things: either TV has slid into a morass of depravity in just two years, or there are far too many curtain-twitchers with internet access.

Which brings me to the BBC campaign – and it was a campaign, it seems, orchestrated by Mediawatch (which comes from the dear departed Mary Whitehouse) and a loose coalition of religious groups, helped by The Sun on a slow news day. Pre-show complaints reached 40,000 and by the time the programme was aired, that number had risen to 50,000; Christian web sites posted the home contact details of BBC executives, and the police have been called in to investigate a number of telephoned death threats to the same executives – and many of those calls were answered by the executives’ young children. Yep: “Although I do not know for sure, I have been told by someone who read about someone who said that on the basis of what they heard from someone else, your programme defames my religion of compassion, love and understanding. And therefore I must frighten your children and threaten to kill you.”

As Terry Sanderson of the the National Secular Society points out:

“Jerry Springer – The Opera is an award-winning show, and having been run for two years at theatres demonstrates it popularity.”

Where were the death threats and picket lines during the two-year run? Surely if it’s offensive, it’s offensive? As Martin Belam points out, the show is still running in the theatre without any traces of placard-wielding protestors.

Sanderson continues:

It is the BBC’s formal duty to reflect society and bring such plays to a wider audience who might not otherwise be able to see them at a theatre. All the research by TV regulators shows that British audiences have a high tolerance threshold for swearing on TV. as long as it is relevant to the context. The programme will be shown at a late hour, with adequate warnings about its nature, and viewers have a right to see it. Those who are likely to be offended have a similar right to turn it off… Religious broadcasting already has a disproportionate amount of air time. We shouldn’t now see minority religious leaders dictating what the rest of us can and can’t see. If we follow that route, there would be hardly any contemporary drama on TV.

Sanderson also noted that the latest newspaper poll (for the Daily Telegraph) shows that believers are now in a minority: the UK is a secular, not a Christian, country.

Ultimately, of course, this is about free speech. The protesters are taking advantage of (and in the case of the telephone callers, abusing) their right to free speech in order to criticise something they disagree with – but they don’t want anyone else to enjoy the same rights of free expression, which is why they’re calling for bans rather than just expressing outrage. The same energy could be put to much better use dealing with some of the more pressing evils of the world, but while I’m sure that a minority of the complainers put as much time and effort into helping the underprivileged, campaigning against race hate and other genuine problems, I’m equally sure that the majority of them don’t.

Update, 4pm

Conspiracy theory alert: over at Bloggerheads, there’s some interesting discussions about the Daily Mail’s role in this – and whether it has any motives for picking on Jerry Springer The Opera.