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Louisiana State Univ.

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Friday, January 28, 2005

BBC Faces Blasphemy Complaints After Broadcasting Jerry Springer Opera

The Scotsman reports that Operation Christian Vote, a Christian political party, has asked for an official investigation into whether the BBC broke the law by airing the program Jerry Springer--The Opera on BBC2. The musical is currently running in London's West End. The broadcast attracted both a large audience (nearly 2 million viewers) and a large number of objections (47,000). The head of Operation Christian Vote, the Reverend George Hargreaves, identified a particular scene in the show as blasphemous. (Kate Foster, Springer TV Opera Faces Blasphemy Complaint, January 16, 2005).

For its part, the BBC defends the transmission. The Times reports that BBC Chairman Michael Grade checked with BBC Director-General Mark Thompson to make certain that the performance would not be considered either criminal or offensive. Both the network and Ofcom (the British agency empowered to regulate UK communications industries) are preparing to investigate the matter. (Adam Sherwin, BBC Chief Defends Jerry Springer, Times Online, January 13, 2005).

A BBC Radio 3 producer has left his post over the matter, citing a matter of conscience. The Times quotes Anthony Pitts' letter of resignation as indicating his dismay over the extent of the offense.

The protests over Jerry Springer--The Opera follow by just a few weeks objections by some in the Birmingham, England Sikh community to the staging of a play called Behzti (Dishonor) by the Birmingham (England) Repertory Company. Dan Tench, a specialist in public and media law at Olswang, offers an interesting review of the application of blasphemy law in England and Scotland over the past 400 years. Tench surveys the use of the charge against booksellers and publishers through the 1970s. He points out that even the European Convention on Human Rights with its protections for freedom of expression does not quite succeed in overcoming the presumption that the charge has a legitimate purpose.(Dan Tench, The Guardian, January 17, 2005). But as he points out, we cannot tell exactly what "blasphemy" means in the English legal scheme. He reviews the Gay News case which proceeded throughout the British courts to the European Court of Human Rights. (See R v. Lemon, R v. Gay News Ltd., [1979] Appeal Cases 617, [1979] 1 All England Law Reports 898, [1979] 2 Weekly Law Reports 281).

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