Media: Banned and damned in the USA: John Willis of Channel 4 explains how a documentary about artistic censorship is itself being suppressed

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The Independent Online
Next week, in the small town of Aberdeen, Mississippi, Judge Glen Davidson will make a decision that people at both ends of the American political spectrum await with trepidation. The defendant is Channel 4 and the implications of the decision will be as far-reaching as the contempt of court judgment against the company in London last week.

The bizarre case centres on Paul Yule's documentary Damned in the USA, which examined the limits to artistic freedom in the United States, with references to the controversial work of the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. The film was shown in Channel 4's Banned season last year and won an International Emmy for Best Arts Documentary.

The Rev Donald Wildmon, a Christian fundamentalist of the conservative American Family Association (AFA), who was a major contributor to the film, started legal proceedings several months after transmission, claiming dollars 500,000 in damages because it had been shown at the Margaret Mead Film Festival in New York. He later claimed punitive damages, bringing the total to dollars 6m, for showings at the Edinburgh Festival and at Webster University, in Missouri.

His suit claimed that his contract with Mr Yule prevented Channel 4 from 'making the interview available in any other media outlet', including showings at film festivals. The programme makers and Channel 4 maintain that the contract merely prevented the selling of the interview or extracts from it to magazines of which Mr Wildmon did not approve.

Now that the suit has prevented sales to American broadcasters and distributors, Channel 4 has sought a declaration enabling the film to be shown on the basis that Mr Wildmon has unlawfully interfered with Channel 4's rights to exploit it. As a result, what began as a copyright case has turned into a major First Amendment cause celebre.

Mr Wildmon is an adept campaigner for the AFA, whose members boycotted 7-Eleven stores for six years until they stopped selling Playboy and Penthouse magazines. He has fought tenaciously against the portrayal of homosexuality on television.

The liberal establishment, determined to stop Mr Wildmon suppressing images and ideas that conflict with his own, has been galvanised into action. Channel 4's lawyer, Martin Garbus, is fresh from winning the battle to publish The Satanic Verses in paperback and previously defended Andrei Sakharov and Lenny Bruce. Now Robert de Niro has offered his Tribeca Grill for a Channel 4 benefit to help to cover the legal costs.

The court in Mississippi is a few miles from where civil rights workers were murdered in the Sixties and even now it is not friendly territory for editors who commission a film about an explicit homosexual photographer such as Mapplethorpe. When attempts to move the case away from Mr Wildmon's Mississippi base to New York failed, the locals, said Mr Wildmon's attorney, 'were dancing in the pews down here'.

Mr Wildmon admits that the film has given him what he has rarely had before, a fair hearing. He comes across as so soft-spoken and concerned that he makes Mary Whitehouse look like a fire-breathing extremist. Yet his action has effectively gagged the film and welded together organisations such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch to defend freedom of expression. As Mr Garbus put it: 'This deals with pressing political issues of our time.'

A leading article in the Miami Herald concurred. 'Like a physician stricken by the epidemic he attempts to cure, (this) film has become a victim of the illness it denounces,' it stated.

If Judge Davidson allows the film to be shown, Mr Wildmon will be seen alongside photographs he deplores. If he bans it, then not only will Channel 4 face a legal bill running into millions of dollars, but an active debate about censorship will have been suppressed. Preventing the transmission of this film in the United States will put back the right to freedom of expression in broadcasting by several years.

Whatever the outcome, the case will prove to be rich material for a future Banned season.

The writer is controller of factual programmes at Channel 4.

(Photograph omitted)