Terence Blacker: Censorship is in the ascendant

The reaction across the political spectrum to the South Park saga has added to its grim comedy. As a culture, we increasingly prefer to play safe and to avoid trouble

In one area at least, our Prime Minister has proved himself to be in perfect harmony with the times. When, this week, his privacy was invaded by a Sky News microphone, his view of poor old Mrs Gillian Duffy was not simply that he had met a woman who disagreed with him. She was a bigot.

We are big on bigotry right now. It is a useful term which corals tricky attitudes and opinions away from examination. Never far away in any discussion about the limits to free speech, it is often used to justify the suppression of inappropriate attitudes. No one, after all, wishes to give bigotry any kind of platform.

The contradictions contained in that apparently logical argument are exemplified to perfection in the recent history of the masterly TV cartoon South Park. Over the 14 years of its existence, there have been few themes of contemporary life, however tricky or taboo, which have been spared its brand of exuberant and fearless satire. No political or ethical agenda has been pursued; the programmes are simply a blast against hypocrisy, conformity, pomposity and, of course, bigotry.

This month, for the first time, the bigots have won a victory over South Park. The show's two guiding lights, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, being instinctive stirrers, elected to mark the 200th episode with a return to what has been their most troublesome topic: the Prophet Muhammad. In 2001, he had been depicted on screen, with Jesus, Buddha and other religious figures in an episode called "Super Best Friends". They returned to the subject after the controversy surrounding the Danish cartoons of Muhammad; on this occasion, the network Comedy Central blanked out the screen with an apologetic message.

The recent anniversary episodes of a two-part series were also heavily censored. Images were blanked, speeches bleeped. Even a final peroration by one of the characters, which made no mention of Muhammad, was cut: its references to intimidation and fear were thought to be risky.

A fringe group calling itself Revolution Muslim posted a warning on its website making reference to Theo van Gogh, the Dutch film-maker assassinated by a Muslim fanatic and, to add a certain force to what was being said, posting a photograph of the dead man with a knife in his chest. "We have to warn Matt and Trey that what they are doing is stupid and they will probably end up like Theo van Gogh for airing this show. This is not a threat, but a warning of the reality of what will likely happen to them," the message ran.

As Stone and Parker have bravely pointed out, the extremists have won. What was once OK is now definitely a problem. Censorship is the new normal – all as the result of acts of violence. A blasphemous version of Christ can appear on the show, but any image of Muhammad – however heroic or positive – is forbidden.

There is more to this than a bit of fuss surrounding a satire show. We are, as a culture, becoming increasingly relaxed about censorship, preferring to play safe and to avoid trouble. The reaction across the political spectrum to the South Park saga has added to its grim comedy.

Liberal voices have suggested too much is being made of the whole thing. Zahed Amanulla, associate editor of altmuslim.com, has argued in a national newspaper blog that, since the warning came from an unrepresentative group, the media interest was not justified. As for events of the past – the fatwa on Salman Rushdie, the Danish cartoons, the murder of van Gogh – they were "three incidents over a 20-year period from amongst 1.6 billion people. These things do happen. But we all need a bit of perspective."

Elsewhere it has been written that those who write or film controversially should expect that their acts will have consequences.

Among conservatives, Stone and Parker, once the ultimate enemies of respectability, have become instant American heroes. The very people who over the past decade or so have been vilified for tastelessness and profanity, for corrupting children, for racism, anti-Americanism and, recently, gingerism (an episode was blamed for the creation, in Canada of all places, of "Kick a Ginger Day"), now represent all that is good and noble. There are respectful references to one of their more controversial characters of the past, a talking turd called Mr Hankey the Christmas Poo.

Those who advocate that gentle, caring form of censorship which involves removing from the public gaze any material that may be potentially insulting to individuals should consider the case of South Park. Offensiveness is often a subjective matter; freedom of speech is not worth the name if it does not include the objectionable.

The division between religious, political and personal forms of inappropriateness tends to be somewhat blurry. Where, to quote an example from this week's news, would one place a joke by the comedian Frankie Boyle for which the BBC Trust has just apologised? In a riff about Palestine, Boyle said the whole question was tricky but he had an analogy which helped explain it: "If you imagine that Palestine is a cake – well, that cake is being pounded to pieces by a very angry Jew."

It is not much of joke, and one can disapprove of its sentiment, but what could it have been that, after a single complaint from a member of the public, justified the BBC apologising for a line that was "inappropriate and offensive"? The answer – perhaps you guessed – was in the word "Jew". For some reason, nouns cause more offense than adjectives.

So another ruling is recorded which will make broadcasters that much more wary in the future. Because we have remarkably few creative people with the courage to stand up to intimidation in the way that Matt Stone and Trey Parker are doing in America, what can or cannot be said will, step by step, phrase by phrase, become more proscribed, and our society more sanitised and controlled.

Perversely, it is a victory for bigots.