A new intolerance is on the rise in Britain. Last month, a mob stormed a play in Birmingham because they considered it an insult to the Sikh religion. Over the weekend, the controller of BBC2, Roly Keating, was given security protection after death threats from Christian zealots over his decision to screen a performance of Jerry Springer - The Opera.
These incidents amount to a basic assault on our tradition of free speech. In Britain, there is no right not to be offended. Our society is held together by the bonds of toleration, and the idea that one group can curtail the harmless enjoyment of another ought to be anathema. After the protests in Birmingham the play, Behzti, was withdrawn on the grounds that the theatre could no longer guarantee the safety of the audience. The Government's response was disgraceful. Far from condemning this act of de facto censorship, it seemed vaguely to welcome the fact that the controversial play would no longer be produced. If it chooses to become involved this time, the Government must speak up for the BBC.
The campaign against Jerry Springer had no clear focus. While some were concerned about blasphemy, others objected to the number of swear words in the show. Others saw it as a betrayal of the BBC's public service remit. It is not difficult to rebut these charges. Jerry Springer is clearly a satirical work, and no more "blasphemous" than Monty Python's Life of Brian, which, since its troubled release in 1979, has been enjoyed by a huge number of people. The swearing in Jerry Springer was integral to the plot, which is more than can be said for many other programmes. In any case, it went out after the watershed. The BBC's public service remit means it has a duty to put out challenging and quality broadcasting: Jerry Springer fitted this bill perfectly. But there is an even stronger argument to be made on behalf of the production. The simple fact is that no one was compelled to watch.
In recent weeks, the zealots have had their say about what we can and cannot see. It is time for the tolerant majority in Britain to make its voice heard.
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