Charles Moore, a former editor of the Telegraph , supports the imprisonment of BBC executives. That's a good start, I say :) |
Until recently, people who wrote letters protesting about insults to decency, the Royal Family, God, and so on, often used to end with the words: "Is nothing sacred?" I notice that they have mostly given up doing so. This must be because, in British public space today, the answer to their question is so clearly: "No - nothing at all."
This week, the High Court upheld a district judge's decision to refuse an attempt to prosecute the BBC for blasphemy in broadcasting Jerry Springer - The Opera. In the show, an adult Jesus was depicted as wearing a nappy.
The judges were Mr Justice Collins, who is the son of the famous nuclear disarmer, Canon Collins, and Lord Justice Hughes, who lists "bellringing" as one of his recreations in Who's Who. It seems unlikely that either is ignorant of, or unsympathetic to, the claims of Christianity. But both took the view that, in modern society, an attack on Christianity (which, by the way, they thought Jerry Springer - The Opera was not) did not necessarily endanger society. They said that "the identity of Church and state and the near universality of Christian conviction in this country" no longer existed.
Christians should surely not be upset by this decision. The founder of our own religion was crucified because the high priest declared: "He hath spoken blasphemy; what further need have we of witnesses?" The use of the criminal law to uphold a religious belief is normally a power game, not a genuine defence of the honour of God.
In the 39 Articles, which still formally define the beliefs of the Church of England, Roman Catholic masses are described as "blasphemous fables and dangerous deceits". Would Britain be a more genuinely Christian society if, as was once the case, such masses were illegal?
There are many reasons why I should like to imprison most of those at the top of the BBC. The latest is that, with the money we are forced by law to give them, they pay £6 million a year to Jonathan Ross. God may be mocked by the BBC, but Mammon is worshipped - and at our expense.
Another might be the story in court this week that the BBC is alleged to have taken men later accused of Islamic terrorism on a paint-balling trip and failed to pass on information about the July 21 London bombers to the police. The corporation made a friendly programme with these men called Don't Panic, I'm Islamic.
But no, I shall suppress my punitive urges and try very hard, as our religion commands, to forgive the wretches instead.
What the judgment exposes, though, is how far we have travelled. Until perhaps the 1990s, it would have been inconceivable for the BBC to depict the adult Jesus wearing a nappy. It was at its founding, and for many years afterwards, an unashamedly, though non-denominational, Christian organisation. It saw part of its purpose as upholding and propagating Christian truths. Its longest-running programme, I believe, is The Daily Service.
During the Second World War, Dorothy Sayers's highly respectful play, The Man Born to be King, was broadcast on BBC radio. There were large protests at the blasphemy inherent in allowing a human being to take the part of Christ.
In more recent times, there were huge rows about The Life of Brian - misplaced, in my view, since the film is a satire of bogus religion, not an insult to Jesus. But it is only in the past 10 or 15 years that the BBC would not think twice before running excremental mockery of the man whom roughly two billion people worship as God. So a powerful organisation that helped to uphold something high is now contemptuous of it, and does something low. That is a shock.
Since a blasphemy law cannot be sustained in a society where many, even most people do not share the belief blasphemed against, some religious people have sought other legal avenues. Indeed, we now have a Religious Hatred Act, on the statute book since last year.
The idea behind such laws is that extreme forms of offence to believers should be punished. Instead of the notion of blasphemy, which is, in principle, objective, comes a notion that, if you feel very, very hurt, you should have recourse to law.
This is an invitation, of course, for everyone to start saying how hurt they are. The police have been stirred up to threaten legal proceedings against Christians who distribute pamphlets condemning the beliefs of Islam. Muslim activists were so successful in persuading people that the essentially innocuous cartoons published last year in a Danish newspaper were offensive that not a single British national newspaper dared republish them.
The way the game works is that the most huffy, bristling representative of a religion gets the most attention. Indeed, it was Stewart Lee, the author of Jerry Springer - The Opera, who explained the situation with a frankness that perhaps he did not intend. Last year, he said that Christians were fair game because they had degraded their own images, whereas Muslims were "conscientious about protecting the brand".
It is a thought-provoking idea that, to defend one's religion in the modern world, one must behave like Coca-Cola or Hoover and uphold one's copyright in the civil courts. It would certainly be heaven on earth for lawyers. But what Mr Lee was really saying was that he was too frightened to mock a faith unless he could be confident that its supporters would not, literally, hit back.
And that, in essence, is the position of the BBC. In this newspaper, the director-general, Mark Thompson, wrote that no religion should ever be "accorded a veto". Indeed not, but let us suppose that the BBC made a drama about the life of Mohammed. Even if such a film were sympathetic in its treatment, it would offend many Muslims by its mere existence, since the depiction of their Prophet is forbidden in most branches of Islam today. I would bet Jonathan Ross's salary - if I had it - that the BBC will not dare make such a film.
This week, the BBC quickly apologised on air after a presenter joked that Gillian Gibbons, the teacher with the Sudanese teddy bear called Mohammed, also had a dog of that name. It has never apologised for Jesus in his nappy.
The obvious temptation for Christians in these circumstances is to become more menacing in their protests. That, perhaps, is why the attempt was made to prosecute Jerry Springer - The Opera in the first place.
But I cannot believe that it is a productive use of valuable faith-time to run round litigating and prosecuting and hiring QCs. Nor can the Prince of Peace have intended that we use violence to protect his reputation. As soon as he was condemned to death, "Then did they spit in his face, and buffeted him", but he offered no physical resistance.
What, then? Few want a society where religion has the force of law, but I wonder if many really want the society that we are getting where, as I said at the beginning, nothing is sacred.
Our culture, our rule of law, our political institutions, our family life, even our broadcasting, have their roots in the sacred, and in the specifically Christian idea of what that means.
Christians can no longer rely on the wider society to sustain them. Therefore they have all the more duty to promote the sacred, which does so much to sustain what is good in that society. Christmas, the feast that almost everyone knows something about, might be a good season to start.