Mark Thompson: How does the BBC approach religious programming?

The director general of the BBC explains why it aired Jerry Springer: The Opera, and talks about different responses to Christianity and Islam.

In 2005, the BBC broadcast Jerry Springer: The Opera despite protests from Christian groups (read and comment on our case study). The BBC received more than 60,000 complaints about the show – a record at the time. In an interview with Free Speech Debate, Mark Thompson, director general of the BBC, explains the broadcaster’s decision to air the show: “It was a serious piece of artistic work.” The debate fed into a decision made in 2008 to abolish blasphemy laws in England and Wales, which for centuries had made it illegal to insult Christianity. Thompson says: “That’s now left our law. Well, I rejoice in that fact.” But would the BBC have broadcast the programme if it had been about Islam and the Prophet Muhammad? Thompson says it probably would not, and offers this explanation: “It’s not as if Islam is spread evenly across the UK population. It’s almost entirely a religion practiced by people who may already feel in other ways isolated, prejudiced against and where they may well regard an attack on their religion, racisim by other means.” In response to Free Speech Debate’s seventh principle (“We respect the believer but not necessarily the content of the belief”), he says that secularists frequently fail to appreciate that religion isn’t an abstract proposition but a “felt experience”. Thompson says: “The point is [that] for a Muslim, a picture of the Prophet Muhammad, especially if demeaning, may have the force or the emotional force of a piece of grotesque pornography.”

Read a full transcript of the interview here.

(Main image: Mark Thompson, the director general of the BBC. Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images.)

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Comments (10)

Automated machine translations are provided by Google Translate. They should give you a rough idea of what the contributor has said, but cannot be relied on to give an accurate, nuanced translation. Please read them with this in mind.

  1. A number of years ago I wrote to my local MP against the proposed Pope Town series, mentioned by Mark Thompson, and was very pleased with UK democracy to see it removed from the BBC’s schedule.

    And this is part of the problem with the BBC and television more broadly: whether we like it or not, the TV viewing schedule is an intrusion into the timetable and content of the family home. It is impossible for parents to be TV experts and so we rely on media directors to act with discretion. It is for this reason that being “reasonably faithful” to what Britons have come to expect is an ethically defensible policy, albeit hard to define. This is what we see in the comments of Mark Thompson and I am grateful for the insight.

    The problem is that none of this will matter in the next few years when all content in the home is completely self-selected from the WWW. For better or for worse, we are entering an age where the vocation of media directors will cease to matter.

  2. Here is where I take issue with Mark Thomson: he does not seem to have basic respect for his fellow citizens who are Christians and who could be greatly upset by the showing on terrestrial TV of Jerry Springer: The Opera. In the event, many were greatly upset, and most of them will have been licence payers / paying customers.
    Contrast that attitude with that recently displayed by the producer and team involved in the BBC2 programme Swimming with Crocodiles 2 Australia. It was notable and commendable that Ben Fogle showed respect for the Aboriginal “Auntie” and her beliefs about crocs. No denigrating and lampooning of beliefs there.
    The BBC may at times emit the message that Christians are a very big and robust minority and don’t need any particular respect, and that a small and done-down minority like the Aborigines does. I would put it to the BBC and to Mark Thompson in particular that it is incumbent on all of us in our society to show respect to all our neighbours, whether in large or small minorities, whether here at home or far away. This the BBC singularly omitted to do when it came to showing Jerry Springer: The Opera. The BBC stubbornly and arrogantly brushed aside the concerns and objections raised by not a few Christians in Britain. I believe one BBC executive resigned over the BBC’s decision; that act was and is greatly to the man’s credit. It is a pity that his resignation didn’t result in the BBC’s having a re-think.
    I would further take issue with Mark Thompson over his averring “It was a serious piece of artistic work”. That is risible. On artistic grounds alone we can see the piece was full of vulgarity and juvenile wallowing in the ‘f’ word. I would be very surprised if in years to come the production is remembered for anything other than its ‘shock’ value.
    Finally, Mark Thompson himself admitted that the feelings of Muslims would not be treated with the same disregard and contempt – an admission of bias? Enough said…

    • Hello Iain. You say “it is incumbent on all of us in our society to show respect to all our neighbours,”. Why? It may be an ideal to aspire to in principle, but in practice it might be more prudent to advance on a more objective basis, and only to offer respect when the other prove themselves worthy of it. It seems only sensible to appreciate the nature of us human beings, and to acknowledge that decency is an accomplishment achieved with effort, and not the default setting of our species. It is for this reason that I have also disagreed with this principle, No 7.

  3. That was interesting. But he was allowed to brush off too many questions.

    In particular, when TGA challenged him on whether the BBC effectively gives in to threats of violence, he started talking about how muslims and others perceive ridicule of their beliefs as threats of violence in themselves. Now, that’s an important point to discuss but it is completely irrelevant to the question of whether the BBC does, or should, take threats of physical violence into account when deciding what to broadcast.

    He certainly never answers the question of why Islam receives particularly careful treatment, compared to Sikhism or Hinduism, say, leaving the clear impression that it is the threat of violent consequences that is behind it. And I thought his attempts to create a kind of equivalence by talking all the time of ‘religions’ were rather feeble. I certainly don’t recall the (rather brilliant) ‘Goodness Gracious Me’ ever mocking Islam.

    Still, interesting discussion as far as it went.

  4. Mark Thompson commented that Religion is a “felt experience”. As such, sensitivity and equality are important considerations. If as Mark explains no programme would be aired that insulted Mohammed then surely a similar sensitivity should be afforded to those of us who believe that Jesus Christ is God himself and that deliberate insults are profoundly hurtful. Our beliefs encourage us to forgive rather than attack when hurt, (something Christians often fall short in) but in a progressive pluralist society such a response should encourage increased consideration not a greater freedom to insult and disparage. Conversely if fear is seen to be the only pressure to which a broadcaster responds this will in turn encourage those who express violence and intimidation as a means of silencing criticism.

  5. We all know what Mark Thompson is saying – He knows that Christians will show the forgiving attitude which Jesus Christ taught them to – while some Muslims are likely blow up the BBC’s offices or issue a fatwah against him personally.
    The only reason he and the BBC differentiate between the two is fear and cowardice.

    • Ken – your statement, that Christians will “show the forgiving attitude that Jesus Christ taught them”, is neglecting to take into account hundreds of years of years of violence and oppression waged in the name of Christianity. While millions of Christians wield their faith with tolerance and forgiveness, millions more use it to justify hate and bigotry.

      I do not believe that Islam should be above criticism, or even ridicule, any more than should Christianity, but it is both necessary and responsible to take into account the fact that Islamic extremism is now rightly viewed as a far greater threat than Christian extremism.

      The context this debate needs to be seen in is also far broader; the Judeo-Christian assault on Arab Muslim lands, the racism directed towards many Muslims living in the west, and the perceived injustice of prolonged military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan during which hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed.

      Terror, while never justified, is an act of desperation, the only means of assault on a far more powerful enemy. In other words, while “Christian” powers, most notably the United States, still rule the world “forgiveness” is a luxury they can afford, and slights can be accepted with a degree of grace.

  6. At last – some clarity concerning the BBC’s biased attitude towards Christianity, and a tacit admission that the BBC is not concerned about fairness or even what is right or wrong. Just about what they can get away with. Peaceful protests are ignored where possible.

    • In reply to Davejw – After reading your comment I was looking forward to hearing something in this interview to make me harumph. But disappointingly I didn’t actually hear anything at all to support the charge of bias. On the contrary, I was rather impressed with Thompson’s thoughtful and measured responses to the ethical dilemmas faced by the organisation. Also rather pleased that they do sometimes disregard protests – I don’t think the BBC would be fulfilling its remit if it automatically caved in to protests by pressure groups.

      I was also impressed with the frankness of Thompson’s admission that the threat of violence has had an impact. It’s time that more groups admitted it – it would lead to a much more mature conversation.

      • That isn’t the point. This statement admits that the BBC isn’t concerned about fairness, or even about right and wrong or sensitivity. There is no respect in this for anyone’s beliefs; not even Islam. Only what they can get away with without stirring up trouble for themselves. In other words, instead of setting an example, a powerful media influence has degenerated into an amoral hotch-potch.

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