Greg Dyke On Broadcasting

Why did the media choose not to show the cartoons of Mohamed?
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ust how difficult a decision was it for the British television news organisations to decide whether or not to show in their bulletins the infamous Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed? More to the point, how much was their decision to show only a small glimpse of the cartoons a result of being worried about offending Muslim opinion in Britain and how much the fear of what could happen here if they showed the cartoons in full?

What I do know is that senior people in all three television news organisations - BBC, Sky and ITN - had informal discussions on what to show and what not to show that resulted in them all following the same policy. By all sticking to that policy, by all agreeing to show only a quick pan shot of the cartoons, it meant that none of them were out of step and all were less exposed.

In all three newsrooms there was a great deal of internal debate. Inside ITN there were some who thought that the decision taken to show the panned shots in only one ITV bulletin was itself self-censorship.

The decision of the broadcasters was supported by the fact that no British newspaper printed the cartoons, although they were easily available on the internet, and by the Muslim Council of Britain coming out and tacitly supporting them while implicitly warning them not to go any further. Overall it was seen that television news had done its job properly and responsibly.

Now I ought to say that if I had been running BBC News, ITN or Sky News in the last couple of weeks, I think I would have taken the very same decision those executives took. In other words I would have shown as little of the cartoons as was needed to put the story into its proper context. But having said that there is still a nagging doubt at the back of my brain that maybe, just maybe, I would have been taking the wrong decision and taking it for the wrong reasons.

So why do I have my doubts? The answer goes back some years to the height of the furore over The Satanic Verses, when Salman Rushdie was in hiding and under massive security protection. One night, in total secrecy, a small group of us had dinner with him at a friend's house. We had as pleasant a dinner as you can when there are armed police all over the house and garden, but I always remember a warning Rushdie gave that night.

He told us that our tolerant liberal society, which we had fought to establish over centuries, was in danger of being destroyed from within because that very tolerance meant we tolerated people who didn't share those same values and, as a result, they would undermine them. I have a horrible feeling that this is what is happening today.

Last year I defended the BBC's decision to show Jerry Springer the Opera on BBC Four despite massive protests from some in the Christian community, because I believed I was defending the basis of a liberal society - the right to free speech even if some find what is being said deeply offensive. Today I ask myself would I have defended Mohamed the Opera in the same way given the sort of demonstrations we have experienced over the Danish cartoons? And if the answer is no, as I suspect it would be, is it because we are now living in a world where we apply different standards to offending militant Christians than militant Muslims or is it that in the post 9/11 world we better understand the consequences of offending a certain section of Muslim opinion?

In recent weeks I suspect many of us have, irrationally, thought but not dared to say what I saw a liberal Muslim woman actually saying to more militant Muslims on television last week - Britain is a tolerant, liberal culture and you or your parents chose to live here. If you don't want to be part of that culture it's time to go elsewhere. The fact that there are now Muslims standing up and defending our liberal culture is one of the few good things to come out of the events of recent weeks, but I am not at all sure it helps the television news executive faced with a difficult decision to make next time the same issue arises, as it no doubt will, in the months and years ahead.

Are you asking? No, just taking

Just as I was thinking that I was the only one who had noticed the amazing similarities between ITV's hit show of the winter season Dancing on Ice and the BBC's even bigger autumn hit Strictly Come Dancing (see this column two weeks ago) I bumped into the BBC's Chairman Michael Grade.

Michael has now watched the ITV show for three weeks running and, like I am, is convinced that it is a complete rip-off of the BBC's earlier hit programme. In fact, Michael got so upset by what he sees as blatant plagiarism that he called in BBC Director General Mark Thompson and told him that Granada Productions should be made to pay a format fee for stealing the show from the BBC.

According to Grade he's not worried that ITV has a hit show on their hands - he believes that happens in life. No, what has upset him is that he believes that it is "fundamentally wrong" that the talent who dreamt up the idea in the first place shouldn't get paid for it from ITV.

One doubts whether his Director General will do much about it for two reasons. Firstly it's always been very difficult to defend programme formats in court but more to the point someone might ask how much the originators of the BBC show got paid in the first place by the Corporation. If they are full-time employees of the BBC the answer is probably very little.

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