The BBC has, finally, taken action over the lewd behaviour of two high-paid presenters. But when lewd remarks were made about Christ and his followers, the BBC didn’t budge an inch.
In 2005 the BBC’s decision to broadcast Jerry Springer the Opera sparked national outrage and led to over 60,000 complaints to the Beeb – twice the number received over the Brand-Ross affair.
Here, we compare the two incidents and how the BBC responded.
Jerry Springer the Opera
On 8 January 2005 the musical, Jerry Springer the Opera, was broadcast on the BBC 2 TV channel.
The show contained hundreds of swear words and featured God the Father, Jesus Christ, Mary, Adam and Eve and Satan as warring guests on a special edition of the Jerry Springer show – staged in Hell.
It included a portrayal of Jesus as a childish, foul-mouthed woman-beater with a sexual predilection for human excrement and who declared himself to be “a bit gay”. It also featured an attempt by Eve to masturbate Jesus.
God the Father was called the ‘fascist tyrant on high’ and was presented as a reflection of an over-weight bisexual from earlier in the show. Christian evangelism was ridiculed by a spoof advert with people singing the words, “Give in to Jesus! Or alternatively die a horrible death.”
The public outcry
The corporation received a record 63,000 complaints before and after the musical was broadcast – twice the number so far received over the Brand-Ross affair.
Hundreds protested when the show was staged in Cardiff.
The then deputy leader of the Conservatives, Michael Ancram, said the BBC had a duty to exercise caution. Hundreds of people gathered outside various BBC buildings across the nation to protest against the show.
The broadcaster faced two unsuccessful High Court legal actions – one a private prosecution for blasphemy and one arguing that the BBC had broken its own taste and decency rules and discriminated against Christians.
Ofcom launched an investigation, but ruled that the BBC did not break any taste and decency codes.
The BBC’s response
The BBC’s Director General, Mark Thompson, defended the broadcast saying that there was nothing blasphemous in the show and that the screening was preceded with strong warnings that it could cause offence.
No action was taken against anyone involved in the broadcast. A BBC Radio 3 producer resigned in protest at the corporation’s stance, saying it offended his Christian beliefs.
Antony Pitts quit after watching the show, saying: “The blasphemy was far, far worse than even the most detailed news reports had led me to believe.”
Brand-Ross ‘prank’ calls
Russell Brand quit and Jonathan Ross was suspended without pay.
On Saturday 18 October, Russell Brand’s BBC Radio 2 show was broadcast featuring him and his guest, Jonathan Ross, leaving crude telephone messages on the answer phone of 78-year-old Andrew Sachs, who played ‘Manuel’ in hit show, Fawlty Towers.
The messages were about Brand’s sexual exploits with his granddaughter. Brand and Ross joked that Mr Sachs may kill himself over the revelations. The show was pre-recorded and then broadcast to the nation with the approval of BBC editors and producers.
The public outcry
When the ‘stunt’ was reported in the press there was a surge in complaints to the BBC. The number of complaints currently stands at over 30,000.
The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have both demanded action from the broadcaster.
Commentators said the public outrage was not just a reaction to the two presenters, it was something deeper – people were fed up with plunging standards at the BBC.
Ofcom – the broadcasting watchdog – is investigating the incident.
The BBC’s response
Director General, Mark Thompson, issued an unreserved apology and suspended the pair before entering a series of emergency meetings to investigate the matter.
Brand later resigned over the affair, as did the controller of Radio 2, Lesley Douglas. The BBC issued a “final warning” to Ross and suspended him without pay for 12 weeks.
Thompson announced a clamp down, saying there must be “tight discipline” across the corporation and that “nothing like this must ever happen again”.
Why the difference?
When Ofcom rejected complaints against Jerry Springer the Opera it said it had to balance protection from harmful and offensive material with freedom of expression.
The watchdog said: “Freedom of expression is particularly important in the context of artistic works, beliefs, philosophy and argument.” No doubt this will be used by some to justify the difference in treatment.
But many Christians will feel the difference is the latest in a series of incidents which reveal an anti-Christian bias at the publicly-funded broadcaster.
Last month, before the Brand-Ross saga blew up, Mark Thompson admitted that the BBC treats Christianity less sensitively than other religions.
The BBC’s own Andrew Marr has described the corporation as “not impartial or neutral. It’s a publicly funded, urban organisation with an abnormally large number of young people, ethnic minorities and gay people. It has a liberal bias.”