In the wake of the furore over the TV programme Brass Eye, it was announced that the government, in the form of the culture secretary, Tessa Jowell, was to challenge the Independent Television Commission (ITC) over why it failed to respond to numerous complaints about the recent satirical documentary on paedophilia. The debate over what topics television can and cannot treat as comedy came in the same week that a new Home Office Green Paper on the Sex Offenders Register was published proposing moves to increase the frequency of checks on offenders and the number of people listed. Amongst the fury and rage, the issues raised by these separate issues have been conflated and somehow blurred - and we are all the poorer for it.
The Chris Morris vehicle, Brass Eye, attracted more than 2,000 complaints to Channel 4 and around 600 to the ITC. As well as outraging children's charities such as the NSPCC, which demanded that the repeat screening be ditched, the home secretary, David Blunkett, stated that he was pretty dismayed by the programme. Similarly, and even though she never actually watched the programme, the child protection minister, Beverley Hughes, called it "unspeakably sick". One tabloid newspaper even demanded the revocation of Channel 4's broadcasting licence and for the sacking of the management at the station who commissioned the show.
Reacting to the criticism and complaints, the TV station said that it regretted offence caused to any victim of child abuse but stood by its decision to broadcast the programme. Indeed, Channel 4 head Michael Jackson defended the decision to screen Brass Eye saying that the programme had a real sense of social purpose and it had sought to challenge the inconsistencies in the way the media approaches and sensationalises paedophile crime.
This has surely been the key point that many people seem to have missed in the panic and hysteria. The savage satire of Brass Eye sought to make a deadly serious point over the gross sensationalism and crass exploitation which, in recent times, has characterised media coverage of sex offenders and their crimes. In his usual direct way, Morris was examining the uneasy links between tabloid hysteria of a serious subject and street campaigns to burn out paedophiles (or even paediatricians, as happened in one case) from their homes. Essentially, Morris was asking: 'Who is leading who?'
This programme, as with other Brass Eye episodes, was crucially about exposing the hypocrisy and inconsistency of the media and about making celebrities look like the fools they sometimes can be. Ever keen to see their name in lights, a number of personalities lined up to make absurd statements about a subject they clearly knew little about. In one of the more bizarre sequences, Richard Blackwood told viewers that via the internet online paedophiles can actually make your keyboard release toxic vapours that actually make you more suggestible. After sniffing his keyboard he added: "Now I actually feel more suggestible and that was just from one sniff." Incredibly, there were countless other examples of this thoughtlessness and stupidity which vividly illustrated that Morris had got it absolutely right.
Undoubtedly, some elements of the programme caused general unease. That was, after all, the very point of the show. One of the central criticisms of the programme was not just that it made light of a very serious subject matter but its liberal use of child actors. Channel Four has insisted that all the children featured were aware of what the show was about and that they were trained actors who had their parents with them throughout the making of the programme. A spokesperson said: "All the parents were given scripts and there was no spoofing of the children involved. That was reserved for the celebrities in the public eye who added their voice to something they didn't bother to question."
In my opinion, to focus on the issue of children being involved in the making of the show is to miss the point and deflect attention from the real issues. To be sure, when the mirror is held up to the tabloid media it demonstrated that they do far more harm than good with their opportunistic name and shame campaigns.
The other clear point to be made is that this programme was fundamentally not about the sexual abuse of children and those who perpetrate such acts. This was the case study that was being built around the central point of what happens when you get a dangerous media frenzy around serious social issues. The implications of this have the potential to affect current and future academic research. Such hysteria around a sensitive topic, such as the sexual abuse of children, can create a climate where informed professional social research is virtually impossible to carry out. Research funding councils might now think twice about granting such money if it may lead them onto the front pages on the tabloids.
Likewise, with the possibility of a tabloid outing, a sociologist engaged in a study of some aspect of sexual abuse may not want to be involved in such research if it carries with it a threat of tabloid exposure or possible mob violence. This may sound far-fetched - but is it really? A heated climate of moral panic around paedophilia could destabilise research studies which are crucial to help build up a wider picture of why, mainly heterosexual men, carry out such activities. Undertaking research in an area such as sexual abuse is always a tense and difficult process: these latest developments in media and political circles may have made things even more problematic.
It seems evident that Channel Four and Chris Morris knew exactly what would happen in the post-broadcast meltdown of Brass Eye. The tabloid media recoils when it is viewed as part of the problem rather than as part of the solution to any given public concern. Similarly, those celebrities who were taken in, such as Phil Collins, Gary Lineker and Seb Coe reacted with natural anger and embarrassment at being made to look so foolish. The key point is that the criticism the show has generated is part of the Brass Eye exercise and merely proves that what they were trying to show is true. This was not just some clever postmodern workout on Morris's part: he was just stating the transparent facts.
The real reason that this Brass Eye programme caused offence to some was not because it trivialised or sought to raise a laugh about the sexual abuse of children, but rather it made us question our own prejudices and assumptions about who we trust, and what we believe in, when we watch television or read a newspaper. It really is that simple. I only hope that the hysteria and exposure of the reaction to this issue, following Brass Eye, will not lead to research studies or individuals being jeopardised or damaged.
published on: 2nd August 2001