As a Christian, a church-goer and - I hope - a concerned citizen, I sat down and watched BBC2's Saturday night post-watershed screening of Jerry Springer - The Opera with a certain amount of interest. As someone who regularly laments the absence of anything remotely satirical from terrestrial TV, I ended up thinking it rather funny: well choreographed, full of good lines and gaining most of its impact from the weird juxtaposition of mundane dialogue and mock-high art setting. No particular worries about the supposed blasphemy or even the blitz of bad language, for I knew that if any of the children had surreptitiously chanced upon it, they would have switched off in about 20 seconds.
Not everybody, alas, was so sanguine. According to the latest estimates, approximately 45,000 other concerned citizens complained in advance to the BBC. Hundreds of outraged Christians, meanwhile, demonstrated in the street outside Broadcasting House, while the corporation was thought to be taking legal action against a website operated by Christian Voice that had printed the home telephone numbers of certain of its senior executives. A report that Roly Keating, the controller of BBC2, had been forced into hiding by the resultant volley of abusive phone calls was denied.
The truly depressing thing about this stand-off - one which looks set to become an increasingly common feature of the 21st-century cultural landscape - is the absolute predictability of the attitudes on display and the complete absence of any dialogue. On the one hand, thousands of rabid evangelicals, scarcely 10 of whom will have seen the show in question, dutifully following where their leaders direct; on the other A C Grayling and the spokesperson from the British Humanist Association, whatever that is, primly regretting this "ignoble" threat to the freedom of speech. No attempt by the offended to engage with the thing that is offending them, and no attempt by liberal newspaper pundits to respond with anything other than amused superciliousness. As for the BBC's proud trumpeting of its mandate to screen challenging artistic work, this would look a great deal more plausible if the rest of its schedules weren't packed out with gardening programmes and Trinny and Susannah.
However deplorable the thought of the likes of Roly Keating being terrified to pick up their phones, the sight of militant Christianity taking the trouble to mobilise in the face of something it dislikes is actually a rather welcome development , if only because it may finally draw attention to the 45 degree-angled playing field on which debates about freedom of speech and religious tolerance take place. Of all the religions currently drawn up on the media firing range, Christianity is the softest target of all, dragged down by a public vulnerability that is generally enhanced by the actions of the people put up to defend it. Invite a bishop on to the Today programme to debate with Richard Dawkins, it may be said, and all that will follow is five minutes' worth of craven defensiveness.
One sees this immediately in the contending responses to Jerry Springer - The Opera and Behzti, the play that so enraged the Sikh protesters on its staging last month in Birmingham: on the one side, enlightened condescension; on the other, death threats, outraged local politicians and community leaders, and self-censorship. The Sikhs, one sometimes feel, are much better at these things than us timorous Bible-bashers. Would the BBC, you wonder, care to commission Behzti for its Saturday night schedule, or a comedy satirising the Koran? No, because the ethnic minorities thereby offended take these things seriously, and Mr Keating really would have to take himself away on holiday.
A similar, though less widely reported, spat of this kind took place three or four years ago in Glasgow, when the local branch of HMV was found to be selling a T-shirt advertising the oeuvre of a death-metal band called Cradle of Filth and emblazoned with the slogan "Jesus is a Cunt". HMV declined to withdraw the garment on the grounds that they were opposed to censorship. An exemplary response, no doubt, but would HMV have been equally eager to stock a shirt printed with the words "Mohammed is a Motherfucker" or "Vishnu Sucks"? Somehow, one rather thinks not.
All this gestures at a maxim lost amid the spectacle of politicians sucking up to their electoral sponsors. Either one has freedom of speech or one does not. We inhabit a cultural landscape where one religion, largely because of its association with that increasingly mythical "establishment", is fair game, while others remain sacrosanct for fear of offending the predominantly brown-skinned people who practise them. As a good liberal, I support the right of the BBC to broadcast a programme mocking the God I happen to worship. At the same time - again as a good liberal - I hope that the next time any Cradle of Filth Jesus T-shirts go on sale, the local Christians will be outside baying abuse and searching for the phone numbers of the retail executives responsible. You can't have it both ways.Reuse content