Paul Vallely: The real issue raised by Brass Eye

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The Independent Online

Like most people in the country, I did not see Brass Eye. But this does not disqualify me from having an opinion about Channel 4's "vile spoof documentary" about paedophilia.

Normally, of course, I try to base my judgements on a brief encounter with a few facts. But on this occasion such preparation is evidently unnecessary. So I gather, at any rate, from the outpouring of indignation on the airwaves yesterday and in the public prints over the weekend.

Beverley Hughes, a Home Office minister, said: "This programme trivialised traumatic experiences ... parts of the programme were unspeakably sick." She acknowledged that she had not actually watched the programme, but pointed out that she had seen clips of it and read an account of the rest of its contents.

I am in an even stronger position myself. For I did not even see clips. And I have a read a full account in the Daily Mail under the headline "The sickest TV show ever". I must admit I was momentarily confused by it, since the accompanying picture on the front page was of the winning contestant of Big Brother. But inside, on pages 6 and 7, all was made clear under the banner headline "Show laughs at child sex abuse", complete with a comprehensive side panel which set out a year-by-year guide to "Channel 4's catalogue of filth".

When I read the details I could understand the fuss. The programme's presenter, the so-called satirist Chris Morris, had tricked a number of celebrities into appearing on the show. The singer Phil Collins was talked into wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words "Nonce Sense".

The Tomorrow's World presenter, Philippa Forrester, a woman supposedly well-versed in technology, was persuaded to claim that paedophiles wearing a pair of motorcycle gloves can reach through their computer screens to grope young children. Other dupes included the DJ Neil Fox, who was seen hammering a nail into a crab shell, telling viewers that paedophiles shared more in common genetically with the crustacean than they did with other humans.

Call this satire? It sounds more like Have You Been Framed or Candid Camera to me. Such abuse of celebrities tears at the very fabric of what television is about in a modern consumerist society. No wonder viewers were affronted. To take advantage of such household names, and reveal how their public spiritedness so considerably outstrips their critical faculties and good taste, can only inflame public opinion. More than that, it may actually prevent a proper debate about the kind of measures needed to protect us from the scourge of such celebrities and their half-baked self-importance.

Perhaps those of you who actually saw this programme will disagree. But then I write – not as a television critic tainted by the fact of having seen the offending item – but, like Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, primarily "as a parent and viewer". Or, in this case, as a non-viewer. But you get my general drift.