Donald Macintyre: Politicians are the worst people to censor television

'To be obliged to admit you haven't seen the programme you are denouncing is not a good place to be'
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The Independent Online

Spare a thought this morning for Patricia Hodgson, chief executive of the Independent Television Commission, and probably the person you would least like to be during the present row over last week's Brass Eye.

Ms Hodgson, it is safe to assume, would like to run OfCom the new super regulator planned by the Government for broadcasting. She has already courted some controversy by granting – as the price of the deal she stitched together over News at Ten last year – an extra couple of minutes of peak advertising time to ITV, which is irritating many viewers. Now she has the task of responding to complaints about Brass Eye in a context in which the Government, which decides whether or not to appoint her to the new body, has registered its extreme displeasure with the programme.

What is increasingly becoming the question, however, is whether she should be under such pressure from ministers in the first place. Maybe it wasn't Chris Morris's best programme. Morris is both a brilliant satirist and probably the funniest man in British television. As a result he's a rare talent, very much to be nurtured in a climate in which what passes for satire is usually depressingly trite. But there may have been an element of shocking for the sake of it – in itself a fairly long cultural tradition. Triumph of good taste it wasn't.

At the risk of repeating the obvious, however, it didn't remotely condone paedophilia. To accuse of it doing so is simply a category mistake that misses the point of what the show was about It was counter-voyeuristic. Not a single frame of the show is going to put a child at risk or result in a paedophile going free. Instead it played precisely to Morris's long standing theme of satirising the kind of demonisation by the media-political complex which militates against solving problems.

It also rightly ridicules the idea that nothing can be treated as important in popular television culture unless celebrities, however ignorant about the matter in hand, are involved. If tackling taboo subjects is the complaint against Morris, then that's exactly what Lenny Bruce did to become one of the 20th century's greatest comedians – as did The Producers (about a musical called Springtime for Hitler), one of Mel Brooks's best-loved films.

But in any case that's hardly the point. The programme could, conceivably, be vulnerable on ITC rules dealing with the use of child actors – but then surely only if it was foolish enough not to be upfront with the children and their parents about the purpose of the programme. It certainly doesn't contravene the stipulation in the ITC programme code that the commission should do what it can to ensure programmes are not likely to "incite crime or lead to disorder". And if the complaint is that it either "offends against taste or decency" or that it is "offensive to public feeling" – however that is measured – then why on earth did The Last Temptation of Christ or Queer as Folk (which featured a fairly graphic scene of sex between a 15-year-old boy and a man in his twenties) get past the commission?

But even if this wasn't so and the show had been harder to defend, that would not undermine the larger point. Which is the urgent need for politicians to know when to say nothing. Ministers were conspicuously quiet about last year's genuinely dangerous decision by the News of the World to name and shame paedophiles, even when it led to riots and threats of violence against innocent people.

But then the paper is Britain's biggest selling (and Labour-supporting) Sunday newspaper. Yesterday Beverly Hughes, the Home Office minister, complained that Brass Eye was not the "right way to deal with the subject of paedophilia". Apart from the fact that this is missing the point of the programme on a heroic scale, does she think the News of the World's vigilantism was the right way?

Ministers were also, at least initially, circumspect in the very different case of ITV's democracy-diminishing decision to take News at Ten off the air. The case for similar circumspection over Brass Eye is all the more acute when at least some of the ministers concerned haven't even seen the programme. In the league table of unforced errors, Ms Hughes' interview with the Today programme yesterday rates pretty high.

To be obliged to admit that you haven't seen the programme you are denouncing and then to cite in your defence that the Home Secretary hasn't seen it either (but both of you are instead relying on a "detailed commentary") is not a good place to be. It rather brutally exposes the fact that the minister is speaking not of her own accord, much less out of a sense of real shock, but simply because a populist row has been whipped up about the programme by a national newspaper. Surely the right answer here was: "I haven't seen it and will when I get time. It seems to have upset a lot of people and we need to look at it. But above all, this is a matter not for us but for the ITC."

If the latest reports are to be believed, the producers of Big Brother will now be "redoubling their efforts" to enliven the third series with the live sex that eluded them in the first two. Maybe this doesn't offend too many people these days. But even if it did, you can't really imagine ministers weighing in so unhesitatingly against the voyeurism of Big Brother if only because on average five million electors uncomplainingly watch it (many millions more for the final episode), even if the voting they do is largely confined to the question of who should be evicted from the show. It's hard, frankly, to escape the conclusion that Big Brother is fine because The Sun is up for it and Chris Morris is beyond the pale because the Daily Mail isn't.

The danger of ministers involving themselves in the content of television programmes is that they are opening themselves up to taking the blame for everything that creates a fuss. As for the rest of us, we surely don't want ministers to waste their time micro-managing television schedules. (What's more they are precisely exhibiting some of the tendencies that Morris was satirising in the first place.)

No doubt the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, who did not speak out without seeing the programme, and indeed resisted the temptation to do so at all until David Blunkett forced the pace, understands this. Certainly, she is said to be against a return to the bad old days when the IBA could block programmes before they were transmitted.

Let's hope her colleagues will be similarly robust in the face of the current onslaught. For the abandonment of that regime was a blow against unnecessary censorship and for grown-up liberalism. But, in any case, there are real dangers in her expressions of hostility to the programme and her exhortation to the ITC to learn the lessons from the episode. It's difficult to see this as other than veiled pressure on the ITC to find in favour of the complaints. And that is not what independent regulation is all about. Which is why Patricia Hodgson – through no fault of her own - is in a much less enviable position than Chris Morris this morning.