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    Tuesday, 20 November 2007

    A Last Hurrah?: Christian group seeks BBC blasphemy prosecution

    The Guardian is reporting today that the group Christian Voice is hoping to bring an action for blasphemous libel before the High Court against Mark Thompson - the director general of the BBC - and Jonathan Thoday, producer of the award-winning Jerry Springer: The Opera musical. This would be the first such case since the famous Gay News case of 1977 (Whitehouse v Lemon [1979] 2 WLR 281).

    The group considers that the screening of the musical by the BBC in January 2005 was blasphemous, for example because in it Jesus says he is 'a little bit gay' and is depicted as a 'perv in a nappy', Mary rants at Jesus for abandoning her by dying on the cross, Jesus is told by Satan to 'f*** off', God emerges as an old fool who needs therapy, and Jerry Springer becomes an alternative saviour. Per Lord Scarman in Gay News, blasphemy is "any contemptuous, reviling, scurrilous or ludicrous matter relating to God, Jesus Christ or the Bible, or the formularies of the Church of England as by law established".

    In its May 2005 response to complaints regarding Jerry Springer: the Opera, Ofcom concluded that while "a large number of people were deeply offended by the transmission... the show was an important work and commentary on modern television". The regulator had received 8860 complaints, of which a large proportion (just under half) were the product of a large scale internet campaign. It also received 210 comments in favour of the broadcast.

    Rights-organisation Liberty is acting as an intervener in the case. It contends that "blasphemy laws should be shelved in dusty archives, not used as a tool to bring mischievous prosecutions against the Arts", and that "thirty years have passed since the last blasphemy prosecution, making the law ripe for repeal". It plans to argue that argue that the law violates Article 10 ECHR and that blasphemy should be decriminalised because of its lack of legal certainty.

    This law has long been considered problematic. In 2003, a Lords Committee recommended the abolition of the offence. In a 1986 report, the Law Commission highlighted the breadth of the law (the difficulty of assessing whether particular comments fall within it), the narrowness of the law (the application only to Anglican Christian beliefs), and the irrelevance of the speaker's intent as key concerns. It is noteworthy that both Gay News and this case are founded upon private prosecutions. Of course, the existence of the offence informed the debate surrounding the introduction of the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006, which created offences involving stirring up hatred against persons on religious grounds.

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