The Blatant Blasphemy Corporation?

By John C Beyer, Director mediawatch-uk


wenty-five 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".

Advice from legal experts concluded that the poem transgressed the law of blasphemous libel and so Mary launched a private prosecution. The poem stated that Jesus' crucified body was sexually violated and that he had had sexual relations with the Twelve.

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 judgement … a reckless disregard for the feelings of Christians … and for millions of non-Christians who sympathise with the doctrine of Christianity."


n 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. Reports suggest that the matter is under active investigation.


he BBC's Producers' Guidelines, said to be the most comprehensive ethical code anywhere in the world, has enough to say on blasphemy that any reasonable person reading it 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. Upon being appointed chairman, Mr Davies said that he wanted to make the Corporation "more directly accountable to the public". Significantly, the BBC's statement of promises for 2000/2001 states that:

"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 who admitted that he is not a legal expert, nor evidently, an expert on the Producers' Guidelines! 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!


ndependent research indicates that religious programming has been steadily reduced and pushed to the margins of the schedules. There are exceptions: on BBC1 TV, the flagship channel, 'Songs of Praise' continues to enjoy a huge following. On BBC Radio 2 'Good Morning Sunday' combines cheery banter with music and some serious interviews.

In October 1999 the BBC hosted a symposium on religious broadcasting entitled 'Faith in the Future'. The overwhelming feeling expressed by many people present, from all faith communities, was that religion is an important factor in the lives of millions of people but this is barely reflected in the BBC's television or radio output. Too often, it was felt, religious people are negatively portrayed in drama and film. Responding to the criticism the BBC published in March 2000 an impressive twelve-page press briefing listing the numerous religious programmes scheduled for Holy Week and Easter.

Writing in 'Ariel', the BBC's in-house newspaper in July 2001, Alan Bookbinder, the BBC's agnostic head of Religion and Ethics, said: "I have gained a sensitivity to the issues and feelings of people with faith - in fact I have huge empathy with them and even envy people for whom faith means purpose and identity". He expressed the wish to meet with religious leaders to "address properly concerns over perceptions that the BBC's commitment to religious output has declined".

Last weekend the BBC launched a new digital TV channel, BBC4. "Everybody needs a place to think" says the promotion. Nobody need think about religion, however, because it does not feature in the channel's "rich mix of news and serious cultural and factual programming".

I respectfully suggest that Mr Bookbinder's discussions really should reach internally to the gratuitous offence caused by output from other departments because I really do wonder what will be done next to offend religious sensibilities and affront the Christian community!

This article first appeared in 'The Catholic Herald' 8/3/2002

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