The controversy arising from Rowan Atkinson’s Comic Relief sketch back in March in which he poked fun at the newly anointed Archbishop of Canterbury has this July been cleared of breaking any broadcasting guidelines by Ofcom. It is however, a stark reminder of the precarious nature of free speech in the UK today – epically so in instances where the subject of discussion is religion.
The controversy stems from the omission of the sketch entirely on the iPlayer’s version of the comic relief show in response to 2200 phone complaints received. When questioned on the absence of the sketch, the official response stated that the piece was problematic due to the ‘subject matter’ and the language used. It was pre-watershed so they ‘took a swift decision to remove it’. Given that the language issue could be neutralised by making use of the adult content warning, one is forced to conclude the main reservation the corporation had was with the nature of the material.
Atkinson is no stranger to the fine line that humorists walk when working with potentially controversial subjects, in fact quite the opposite. He was an ardent critic of the Racial and Religious Hatred bill of 2006 becoming law. Recognising the curbs to freedom of expression it could have on satirists alone provided enough grounds to be fearful of its wider social implications. Laying substance on his claims he cited sketches he had been been involved with on programmes such as Not the Nine O’Clock News which could have been prosecuted if the bill had been law at the time. The self-censorship and restraint writers would be forced to employ could render religious institutions and beliefs immune to criticism or mockery, throwing the nation back in time to an age before the Enlightenment.
Such reservations were evidently felt in Parliament, given that this was the third time in four years the government had tried to get such a piece of legislation through both houses. The bill itself sought to make an offence of inciting hatred of a person or community on the basis of their religion. While few would argue over the need to ensure against marginalisation and stop persecution of religious minorities, such a bill would clearly be detrimental to the nature of free speech within a healthy democracy. Atkinson at the time likened it to “using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut”.
Any discussion over the point at which critical discussion, mockery and satire become bigotry and persecution is so evidently a mire of grey. One wonders how much faith to place in the way those required to enforce it would elect to. But against the backdrop of the way Section 5 of the 1986 Public Order Act was being readily invoked at the time – a clause which outlawed harassing and/or causing alarm or distress to individuals or groups – such concerns were anything but groundless.
The infamous Section 5 clause (which has only very recently been revised) was being routinely used to make offences out of incidents so innocuous they’d be laughable if they didn’t carry such serious consequences. These include an individual being arrested for calling an officer’s horse ‘gay’, and a peaceful protester detained for holding a placard saying Scientology is a dangerous ‘cult’ – not that any complaints were raised about the sign by a member of the Church. However, an officer monitoring the protest, who himself was not a member of the faith, saw fit to burden the insult he envisaged a member would have felt before making the arrest.
The point was in fact made at the time that both the Bible and the Qur’an would be in breach of the Religious Hatred Bill if introduced, due to the incitement to violence various passages both texts demand of their followers. Such concerns, however, were ultimately rebuked as the Human Rights Act of 1998 guarantees freedom of religion and self-expression and accordingly, any state encouragement to modify or omit any sacred texts would be in violation of this.
The bill ultimately became law in 2007, making a crime of anyone who “…uses threatening words or behaviour, or displays any written material which is threatening, is guilty of an offence if he intends thereby to stir up religious hatred”, with the aforementioned exemption afforded to religious texts. Despite the campaign against the enactment failing, it did achieve an late amendment stating it could not be used to “prohibit or restrict discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents…” in order to safeguard the perceived threat which critics were concerned would arise.
In spite of even these protections however, discussions of a religious nature – even in private – were demonstrated to be delicate as two hoteliers found in 2009 for suggesting the Muslim veil is oppressive to women and that the prophet Mohammed was a ‘warlord’. However ignorant one may consider such comments, merely having a conversation to illuminate, discuss and challenge such views saw the hoteliers being questioned by the police for potentially violating the act.
Things aren’t all bleak though. Since the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill went on to become law, blasphemy has been taken off the books in England and Wales, though it remains in force in Northern Ireland. The campaign to reform Section 5, which Rowan Atkinson was again outspoken on, was successful and the amendments will become law later this year. And, as mentioned, Ofcom in July that after ‘careful consideration’, Atkinson’s Comic Relief Archbishop sketch was not in breach of broadcasting guidelines. Of more immediate concern is that such conversations need to take place on these matters at all by the regulator, and the level of capitulation broadcasters sink to when they fear religious sensibilities have been offended.
While it is impossible to measure the effect the Racial and Religious Hatred Act then had, and now has on artistic self-censorship, it is against such a backdrop that Atkinson’s Archbishop Comic Relief sketch was delivered. Though offensive to some, to the extent that warranted actively complaining, it was relatively tame by Atkinson’s own standards. For example when comparing it to “The Church’s position on fellatio” sketch this piece was somewhat subdued, albeit still a few notches up from the Four Weddings and a Funeral’s bumbling vicar.
The question one may dwell on is the extent to which Atkinson was being deliberately provocative with his air time. But, when a situation exists where a comedian dressing up in a costume and poking fun at a major English institution may run afoul of legal protections afforded to its sector of society, one ought to commend him for bringing to the fore the ridiculous predicament such ill-conceived legislation can give rise to.
An earlier version of this article originally appeared on the National Secular Society website.