Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Summer 2002

When Joan Bakewell dared to speak that poem on television last year, one man in particular was astounded. John C. Beyer is director of Mediawatch-UK, the organisation that used to be called the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association. He thinks the BBC was seriously out of order, and tells us why.

Blasphemy – Is it still a Taboo?

by John C. Beyer

Twenty-six years ago Gay News published a poem by Professor James Kirkup entitled “The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name”. Mary Whitehouse received a copy in her post and, in her autobiography, Quite Contrary, she wrote of her lasting reaction: “I felt, quite simply, deeply ashamed that Christ should be treated in this way ... I experienced out of love for Him a great longing to try to make some reparation.”

There had not been a prosecution for blasphemy for more than fifty years, although the law had been restated in 1975. The definition of blasphemy takes into account whether the publication, about God or Christ or the Christian religion is so scurrilous or abusive or offensive as would, if published, tend to vilify the Christian religion and could lead to a breach of the peace.

At the Old Bailey the jury returned a guilty verdict and thereby confirmed that the poem was indeed a blasphemous libel and contravened the Common Law. The judge said that the publication of the poem revealed “astonishing and lamentable bad taste and error of judgment ... a reckless disregard for the feelings of Christians ... and for millions of non-Christians who sympathise with the doctrine of Christianity”.

In November and December last year the BBC transmitted a four-part series on BBC2 TV entitled Taboo. It was described by BBC Information as “a serious and thought provoking series”, which is Joan Bakewell’s “personal examination of censorship and is therefore based on her experiences throughout her life”. In the course of the fourth programme the very privileged Ms Bakewell said: “The other institution you criticised at your peril [was] the Christian Church. Blasphemy was an offence and still is. In the 1970s a poem, an explicit homosexual fantasy of the centurion taking Christ’s body down from the cross was bound to offend.” She nevertheless recited a most offensive part of the poem while the text and the accompanying drawing were shown on screen.

Having established in the highest court in the land that the poem was a blasphemous libel it seemed incredible that the licence-fee-funded, public-service BBC would be party to the commission of a criminal offence. This, I thought, was a serious matter demanding action, and the next morning I wrote to the Director of Public Prosecutions believing that prosecution of the BBC was in order. Almost four weeks later I was advised that my letter and video recording had been passed to the police service. Newspaper reports suggest that the matter is being actively investigated and a substantive response is, as I write, still awaited.

The BBC’s Producers’ Guidelines, said to be the most comprehensive ethical code anywhere in the world, have enough to say on blasphemy that any reasonable person reading them would think that Kirkup’s poem would be excluded from the airwaves. In section 6.9 on “Religious Sensibilities” it tells programme makers: “... deep offence will be caused by profane references or disrespect, whether verbal or visual, at deities, scriptures, holy days and rituals which are at the heart of various religions – for example the Crucifixion ...” It is stated unequivocally that “Blasphemy is a criminal offence in the UK and advice should be sought, through Heads of Department or Commissioning Executives, from Editorial Policy and lawyers in any instance where the possibility of blasphemy may arise.”

On this seemingly firm ground I wrote to the chairman of the BBC Governors, Gavyn Davies, pointing out that Kirkup’s poem had been declared a blasphemous libel and accordingly it was a criminal offence to publish it. I asked if the terms of the Producers’ Guidelines had been fully complied with and reminded him that the BBC’s royal charter requires the governors to secure that programmes do not offend good taste or decency or offend public feeling. Significantly, the BBC’s statement of promises for 2000/2001 states: “BBC programmes should always be sensitive to the different tastes and beliefs of viewers and listeners.” One wonders precisely how the transmission of part of a poem, described by an eminent law lord as “quite appallingly shocking and outrageous”, could possibly comply with these guidelines and promises.

The answer came, after due process, from the BBC’s head of the Programme Complaints Unit. In a lengthy reply he explained that Ms Bakewell had identified within the Church a “tacit tolerance of blasphemy” but Kirkup’s poem had pushed this tolerance “too far”. “The court action merited examination and it would have been difficult to do this adequately without providing an example of the poem’s content which ... would have the potential to cause offence ... The documentary was shown late in the evening on a channel whose remit includes the examination of serious social issues such as this, and gave ample indication that sexual and other taboos were to be examined openly. The approach was responsible and appropriate to the subject-matter and the inclusion of part of the poem was justified.” Moreover, “the change in public attitudes over time” has extended the “degree of tolerance”.

All rather predictable, I thought, and completely missing the point!

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Created : Sunday, 2002-09-01 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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