Is Religion Exempt From Satire According To The BBC? Clarification and Your Action Required

BBC_Gates

Red Nose Day (Comic Relief) is a biennial UK telethon event, which aims to raise money for charity.  The hook is on the promise of entertainment in the form of famous faces ‘doing something funny for money’. It is hoped that this will attract viewers, and hopefully donations along with it.  (Our team raised over 10k! Just saying)

Over the years, some incredibly talented, hilarious performers and Lenny Henry have appeared during the TV event to participate in various skits, some live, some pre-recorded, some funny, some cringe-worthy. It doesn’t matter, it’s all for a good cause.

This year, Rowan Atkinson of Blackadder and Mr. Bean notoriety gave his time to appear via a pre-recorded sketch.  In the sketch, he appears in character (tongue firmly in cheek) as the ‘New Archbishop of Canterbury’.  Rather than provide an exhaustive description of the, in my view, rather tame contents, you can watch it in full below (until the inevitable swooping of BBC Ninjas):

After the initial live broadcast over 2,000 complaints were received, only a quarter of which, were related to the religious content. This prompted the BBC to issue an apology in conjunction with complete removal of the ‘offending’ skit from their online, on demand service, iPlayer.

I pressed the official iPlayer Twitter account for more details regarding their conclusion that the content was so inappropriate as to merit complete removal from its services.  They were kind enough to direct me to a pre-existing statement, an excerpt of which, is below:

It was clear from this feedback that the Rowan Atkinson sketch was problematic for a number of different reasons, with many viewers noting the subject matter, the language used and its placing early in the evening. It is clear to us that this sketch did not translate as we had hoped and as a direct result of viewer feedback we took a swift decision to remove this from BBC iPlayer.

I requested further clarification from the BBC on some key points, but as of yet, I have not received a response.

 Tweet_to_iplayerfollow_up_q1
follow_up_q2

The lack of clarity and response from the BBC is why I felt the issue was worth pursuing here.

Firstly, the statement from the BBC raises some entirely legitimate concerns regarding the colourful, albeit mild language used in the broadcast.  UK television implements a 9pm watershed, where any breaches are dealt with by Ofcom. This means that any content deemed to contain overtly adult themes or explicit language is unsuitable to be broadcast before 9pm.

With this in mind, and the fact that the skit was broadcast pre-watershed, I sympathise with parents who did not expect to have to explain to their children what the nice Mr. Bean meant by “shag”.

parental_lockThis issue becomes irrelevant however, when framed in the context of the iPlayer service.  A vast amount of post-watershed material is available on its service at any given hour of the day.  The concerns over inappropriate language are easily mitigated by the implementation of content warnings and age verification protocols, as is a standard feature of this service already.

This can only really imply that the BBC took action based on the underwhelming numbers (just a quarter of the 2,200 complaints received) who took offense solely due to the religious themes or ‘subject matter’ of the ‘offending’ item, namely satire and mild mockery at the expense of the Church of England.

And by mild, I mean tepid and innocuous.  I dread to think of the storm I could create were someone to grant me 5 minutes of airtime on a national broadcaster.

I would therefore be keen to hear from the BBC on which other ideologies they feel are exempt from playful satire or mockery and how they go about deciding this for the rest of us. Or why a small humourless minority get to dictate to the larger licence fee paying public what they may or may not view on its services.  The majority of people were not offended it seems, and those that had issues concerning language could have had their concerns acknowledged by a use of already established methods outlined above. I would hazard a guess that the majority of people are also capable of reading a content warning.

I would very much like clarification, feedback or constructive dialogue with anyone who represents the broadcaster.

I would therefore suggest, if you feel the same, you may consider choosing to put this into words via the BBC complaints page.  I believe if enough of us put into words (as I know, many already have) how disappointed we are that religion appears to have been granted special privileges by the broadcaster, and that these, in my view, unsubstantiated objections, get to decide what is deemed appropriate for the larger viewing public, then they may respond.  Also, if you wish, feel free to paste your complaint into the comments section of this blog post, or any other thoughts you may have on this topic.  Tweeting this post out to others and official BBC Twitter accounts may also be helpful.  I think we deserve clarification.

GS

38 comments

  • Can I suggest you provide a sample text for people to submit to BBC complaints? Obviously it should ideally be in people’s own words but people are far more to participate in something if they don’t have to write their own argument duplicating your eloquently written one.

    • A good idea, that I considered, but lacked the time. Maybe I’ll update if I can. Thank you

      • 🙂
        I submitted my complaint but the form process is more complicated than I imagined when I wrote the above! You need the programme channel and air date (BBC One, 15 March for those wondering), and you can’t submit it under iPlayer but have to choose Television. Not the most straightforward of processes.

      • Not being one to drop things easily, I just responded to their reply which was the same cut-and-paste one that everyone else seems to have received. My response was as follows:
        ——————–
        Thank you for your copy-and-paste response. Unfortunately it missed the point I was making entirely and was therefore wholly inadequate.

        I was not complaining about the content of the Rowan Atkinson sketch. Rather, my complaint is that you removed the Rowan Atkinson sketch from iPlayer.

        Your removal of the sketch from iPlayer in response to others’ complaints regarding the content and timing of the original broadcast makes no sense whatsoever in the context of iPlayer’s content controls.

        I once again request a full explanation as to why you did not respond to the original complaints by simply using iPlayer’s content controls to ensure that the sketch reached a suitable audience and instead removed the sketch completely. This makes no sense to me when these content controls are used to protect audiences from far worse language and other content.

        I look forward to an individual, or at least relevant, response from you.

        Kind regards,

        Kieran.
        —————————
        I wonder what they’ll say in response. I had meant to link to this blog but unfortunately forgot.

      • I just received the following response from the BBC:
        —–
        Thanks for contacting us about ‘Comic Relief: Funny for Money’ broadcast on 15 March.

        We’re sorry our previous response didn’t address your complaint about the removal of the Rowan Atkinson sketch from iPlayer.

        The decision to remove the Rowan Atkinson sketch from BBC iPlayer was taken at the highest levels of BBC television management and the reasons behind that decision are explained below:

        “Programmes on iPlayer are subject to the same compliance criteria as the timeslot in which the programme originally transmitted, so we have to take into consideration factors such as time of transmission, likely audience and context within the programme itself, just as we would for the live show. Because of this and the number of complaints we received, we felt in retrospect that this particular sketch had hit the wrong note for the slot in which it was placed and should therefore be removed from the iPlayer programme. We can assure you that decisions to remove content on iPlayer are not taken lightly and we usually make programmes available without amendment, but in some instances we do need to balance this against the potential to cause further offence.”

        This response now completes Stage Two of the BBC’s complaints process and it’s now open for you to ask the BBC Trust to consider an appeal
        ———-

        A better reply – I guess what they’re saying is that had the original broadcast been at a more suitable time it wouldn’t have been removed. This rationale makes little logical sense to me but politically I can at least see roughly where they’re coming from.

        Should I drop it or should I appeal? Not sure….

  • We’re dealing with a staggeringly similar situation here in Poland. One of our younger, more promising stand-up comedians did a short bit about the Pope in which he talked about how the Pope is just a regular man who e.g. farts like the rest of us or wears tights with the 12 disciples on them with “Judas in the middle” or he suggested that one day we might see Catholic extremists in the form of 90-year-old women detonating themselves at the local green grocer. Again, in my view it was very mild but the amount of uproar and cotroversy that the whole thing caused is just upsetting. Religion is a topic like any other and as such is prone to receiving the same amount of mockery/satire/criticism. Why is it so hard for people to accept?

  • I don’t think it was because he said “shag”. I think it’s because he said “prayer doesn’t work”.

  • “I dread to think of the storm I could create were someone to grant me 5 minutes of airtime on a national broadcaster.” I would pay good money to see that 🙂

  • Complaint submitted to the BBC:

    I am shocked that the BBC has chosen to remove Rowan Atkinson’s Red Nose sketch from iPlayer coverage. While the BBC received many complaints citing the subject matter, language and timing of the broadcast, there is no substance to those complaints. I challenge each of the three justifications, and the decision of the BBC:

    SUBJECT MATTER
    BBC Comic Relief is well known for its irreverent humour, and Atkinson’s sketch is entirely in keeping with the spirit and custom of the event. If the BBC is now judging the established religion to be beyond the acceptable limits of mild mockery, then this represents a significant change which deserves open, public debate.

    LANGUAGE
    The sketch carries two words, arse and shag, used sparingly, which according to the BBC’s own editorial guidance on language have the potential to cause mild offence, and are generally permitted without referral and for broadcast before the watershed in suitable contexts such as comedic satire.

    TIMING
    BBC guidelines permit the use of mild language before the watershed. Furthermore, the sketch was broadcast prior to the decision to censure it from iPlayer, and removing it from iPlayer provides absolutely no remedy for the timing of the original broadcast.

    THE BBC DECISION
    It is evident that the decision of the BBC was made to pander to a hypersensitive religious lobby, and not based on editorial content whatsoever. The decision is without sound justification and threatens democratic free speech.

  • “Over the years, some incredibly talented, hilarious performers and Lenny Henry…”

    This made me smile

  • Complaint title:
    Rowan Atkinson sketch removed from iPlayer

    Complaint description:
    Dear Sir / Madam I would like to know why the decision was taken to remove the Rowan Atkinson sketch from the BBC iPlayer? There are many post watershed shows available on iPlayer with filtering so that the shows are only accessed by the age appropriate audience therefore I can only assume a minority of religious nuts have taken offence to the sketch. There is no good reason on this earth why religion should be exempt from satire, religious people should not get to choose what is appropriate for the wider viewing public. Please do not send me the link to the initial BBC statement regarding the show as the explanation is hollow. I would like a explanation not a sound-byte please otherwise I will have to explore further options through ofcom. Thank you for your time. Jason Hannen

  • Reblogged this on Homo economicus' Weblog and commented:
    Whilst I agree with the blog, more to this than just religious sensibilities. The context is a BBC that has had serious problems with comedy (think Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand phone call on Radio) and with pulling documentary on Jimmy Saville as a serial pedophile, but running a tribute programme to him. Having lost a Governor over all this news programme slandering someone as a pedophile implying I would suggest this is a corporation running scared, about future in austerity Britain.

    We can also add that with media outlets, that see BBC as unfair public competition, out to get them and overshadowing what was a great night for philanthropy, BBC decided to reduce impact of the story by reducing possible viewing so complaint numbers may be even less significant.

    None of these things justify the action – the sketch was funny and tongue in cheek parody satire. Do not like it do not tune in. As I do not for thought of the day on Radio 4. BBC has got this wrong but can understand why they have. Thought the context may explain more.

  • Just received e-mail confirmation of receipt of my complaint from BBC:
    Full Complaint: I am dismayed to learn of the BBC removing the sketch of Rowan Atkinson from accessibility on the iPlayer. This is NOT an iPlayer complaint. This is an issue of censorship and the BBC deciding that religion is a topic which is off limits for satire. This is not acceptable. The original complaints about the use of words inappropriate pre-watershed are not unreasonable, but on the iPlayer content is accessed by people confirming they understand the nature of that content. Religion is not exempt as a topic for comedy. Banning comedy sketches that satirise elements of religion is censorship, and censorship insisted on by a very small minority at that. The BBC has got this quite wrong.

  • I replied with the below. I would have like to have taken more time over it, but it is what it is. Twitter @FromThePlinth

    I write to complain about the removal of the Rowan Atkinson Comic relief sketch from iPlayer, where Rowan Atkinson appears in character as the New Archbishop of Canterbury.

    I found it highly amusing, and I am sure that others did too. I wanted to share the clip on iPlayer but found it was removed, and that it was removed due to subject matter concerns as well as language concerns and the timing of the original broadcast.

    I understand the concerns over the language used and the broadcast timing; this is not the issue of my complaint.

    For the clip to be removed from iPlayer, which should have no concerns over language or timing due to parental controls available, appears to suggest that you must be concerned that the subject matter is inappropriate for broadcast. I struggle to comprehend how this could be so.

    I found the sketch amusing without being in any way bawdy, the sort of gentle ribbing of societal norms that Comic Relief is set up to provide. From this I can only conclude that the BBC feels a need to protect religion in particular from fun being poked at it.

    I find this unacceptable from a publicly funded body. Yours is not to act a moral arbiter of what is acceptable as regards religiosity. Judge what is acceptable from the point of view of age appropriateness, by all means, but to take a view on what is acceptable humour concerning religion is overstepping your remit, in my opinion.

  • Good blog. Has anyone had any responsesfrom the BBC yet?

  • Hi GS and other posters,

    I’ve just submitted a complaint too. I imagine we will all get the same generic response – similar to how they “handled” the Thought For The Day complaints. But well worth making the point, just the same.

    @decayDK

  • Just got generic reply. Next to no use at all.

    Thanks for contacting us regarding the BBC iPlayer.

    We note you were unhappy the Comic Relief sketch featuring Rowan Atkinson was removed from Part 1 of ‘Comic Relief: Funny for Money’ on iPlayer.

    We’ve received a high volume of complaints about the suitability of some of the content in this year’s Comic Relief, with many complainants singling out this sketch by Rowan Atkinson.

    Rowan Atkinson is well known for his comedy characters and this was an affectionate portrayal of an Archbishop figure, which was intended to amuse and entertain. It was clear from this feedback that the Rowan Atkinson sketch was problematic for a number of different reasons, with many viewers noting the subject matter, the language used and its placing early in the evening. As this sketch did not translate as we had hoped and as a direct result of viewer feedback we took a swift decision to remove this from BBC iPlayer.

    We did not mean to cause any offence, and the sketch has been removed from BBC iPlayer and will not be reinstated.

    We do note of course that some viewers wanted to view this sketch or watch it again on BBC iPlayer. The decision to remove the sketch means that this won’t be possible and we do understand your disappointment.

    I’d like to assure you that I’ve fully registered your concerns. This will be included on feedback reports that are available to personnel responsible for maintaining and improving the BBC iPlayer service.

    These reports are viewed as important documents that can help shape decisions on future aspects of BBC iPlayer.

    Once again, thanks for taking the time to contact us.

    Kind Regards

    BBC Complaints

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/complaints

    • They miss the point completely. They say they did not mean to cause offence, the sketch has been removed from iPlayer and will not be reinstated. It is the very fact that it has been removed from iPlayer that is causing the offence!

  • Perhaps they simply need to receive 3,000 complaints from non-theists who are “offended” by the decision to remove the content? When the godless squeaky wheel drowns out the squeal from the theist one, maybe then things will change.

  • I have complained also. Not expecting a worthwhile reply, but let’s hope more complaints are made about the removal if the sketch from iplayer than the original broadcast, and perhaps the bbc will see some sense {doesn’t hold breath}.

  • Pah. Got a thoughtless cut and paste reply which demonstrates they don’t bother to comprehend the complaint. This taxpayer-funded arm of the established religion disgusts me.

  • Joe Hesmondhalgh

    I sent a complaint and I got a horribly generic response back that only covered my issue in one short sentence while apologising about the thing that I was complaining that they were apologising about in the first place showing that they just scanned over my complaint quickly and haven’t taken the matter seriously at all.

  • > @decayDK says:
    > March 25, 2013 at 8:08 pm
    > Hi GS and other posters,

    > I’ve just submitted a complaint too. I imagine we will all get the same generic response – similar
    > to how they “handled” the Thought For The Day complaints. But well worth making the point,
    > just the same.

    Following on from this, I got the generic reply (like others) and complained about it to TrustEnquiries@bbc.co.uk (along with a complaint that no named person took responsibility for the cut-and-paste job and that there was no-one to reply to).

    That was 26 March – I’ve just got this reply:

    ===
    Thank you for your email to the BBC Trust. I am responding as a member of the BBC Trust Unit which supports the Chairman and Trustees.

    I am sorry that you found BBC Audience Services’ initial response to your complaint unsatisfactory.

    As you may know, the Trust forms the final stage of the complaints process, hearing complaints on appeal. However, before the Trust can consider a complaint the BBC’s management must first have had sufficient opportunity to respond. Full details of this process are available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/complaints/handle-complaint

    I have therefore passed your email to BBC Audience Services so that they can provide a further response on behalf of the BBC’s management.

    I hope this will be helpful.

    Yours sincerely

    John Hamer
    BBC Trust Unit
    ===

    So let’s see what else ‘BBC Audience Services’ have to say…

    • Excellent work. I may do an update to my blog encouraging people to do the same.

      Thanks again

      GS

      • Just an update to say I haven’t let this drop. I received this reply on 24 April following my email to John Hamer via TrustEnquiries@bbc.co.uk:

        ==Start
        Thank you for contacting the BBC iPlayer support team.

        Please accept our apologies for the delay in replying. We know our correspondents appreciate a quick response and we are sorry you have had to wait on this occasion.

        I understand you’re unhappy with our earlier response about editing Rowan Atkinson sketch of ‘Comic Relief: Funny for Money’ from BBC iPlayer version and feel is has not addressed every point of your complaint.

        As per our BBC iPlayer team programmes on BBC iPlayer are subject to the same compliance criteria as the timeslot in which the programme originally transmitted, so we have to take into consideration factors such as time of transmission, likely audience and context within the programme itself, just as we would for the live show. Because of this and the number of complaints we received, we felt in retrospect that this particular sketch had hit the wrong note for the slot in which it was placed and should therefore be removed from the BBC iPlayer programme.

        We can assure you that decisions to remove content on BBC iPlayer are not taken lightly and we usually make programmes available without amendment, but in some instances we do need to balance this against the potential to cause further offence.

        Nevertheless, I do understand you that you feel very strongly about this issue, so I’d like to assure you that I’ve fully registered your concerns. This will be included on feedback reports that are available to personnel responsible for maintaining and improving the BBC iPlayer service.

        These reports are viewed as important documents that can help shape decisions on future aspects of BBC iPlayer.

        Once again thank you for contacting BBC iPlayer.

        Kind Regards

        Usha Devi Peri

        BBC Audience Services

        http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer

        NB This is sent from an outgoing account only which is not monitored. You cannot reply to this email address but if necessary please contact us via our webform quoting any case number we provided.
        ==End

        On 29 April I made this reply (again using TrustEnquiries@bbc.co.uk to try and avoid the terrible web form):

        ==Start
        Dear Usha Devi Peri,

        I’d like to complain about this response.

        There is no attempt to deal with points (2) or (3) below. There is no attempt to deal with (4) either and your response also fails to provide an email address that can be replied to, so I’d like to add this as complaint item (5).

        Thank you for your response to point (1), providing an explanation as to why the sketch was removed from iPlayer. I find this response unacceptable. It does not explain why you take into consideration the same factors as you would for a live show. It is no longer a live show, and appropriate warnings can be displayed on iPlayer prior to viewing.

        Also, you’ve mentioned “the number of complaints” as a justification without saying how many complaints there were. I’d like to know (a) how many there were, (b) how many of these were about swearing (and (c) what word(s) these complainants found offensive) and (d) how many were about the religious element of the programme. I’d also like to know (e) the estimated number of viewers, so that I can put these numbers into context (previously the BBC described the number of complaints as being of ‘high volume’).

        I’d be grateful if John Hamer or any other person receiving TrustEnquiries@bbc.co.uk email would pass this complaint on again.

        Regards,
        ==End

        I’ve had no reply to this, so today I went back on to their website and posted as much of it as possible into the form. I’m not expecting my points to be addressed, but I think it’s worth the relatively small effort (on my behalf) of hassling them further, to at least get an acknowledgement of the issues.

        I’ll let you know if I get any response this time…

  • AtheistPowerlifter

    Been following your twitter account for some time…have just now found your excellent blog.

    Just a quick note to say thanks for what you do.

    AP

  • 3000 complaints? How many people watched the programme? 10 million ish according to their website, work that out, much less than one percent complaining. It really is a rabid minority who probably complain about everything because it makes them feel better about themselves and having no friends.

  • The poor christians with their fragile feelings. If god was all powerful, why would they care? After all he could just smite Rowan Atkinson… oh yes thats right god is not real.

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