Watchdogs reject blasphemy complaint

Atkinson targeted by Christian Voice

Broadcasting watchdogs have rejected hundreds of complaints that a Rowan Atkinson sketch was blasphemous.

Christian Voice zealot Stephen Green led the campaign against the spoof Bible reading, which was part of the We Are Most Amused gala show for the Prince Of Wales’s 60th birthday in November.

The sketch, which Atkinson has been performing for more than 20 years, retells the story of Jesus’s miracles at the wedding feast in Cana as if they were magic tricks.

After the monologue was aired on ITV1, Ofcom received 540 complaints that it was offensive and blasphemous. The watchdog noted: ‘There was evidence that the complaints were part of an orchestrated campaign.’

As is often the case, the complainants said it was unfair that the comedy targeted Christianity, whereas a similar sketch about Islam would not be permissible.

However, Ofcom said their role is not to determine whether ITV committed blasphemy, but whether the Broadcasting Code had been breached.

In rejecting the complaints today, the watchdog said: ‘The sketch was an absurd interpretation of a well-known biblical miracle story, and was not intended as a serious interpretation of Christian belief, nor would it be realistic to make such an inference. The overall tone of the sketch was affectionate and not abusive of the Christian religion.’

It concluded: ‘The approach would have been well understood by the vast majority of the audience and would not have gone beyond what would normally be expected in a programme of this type.’

Christian Voice distributed an email at the time the sketch was broadcasting, urging its supporters to contact Ofcom over the ‘insulting, mocking, crass and disrespectful’ comedy.

It added: ‘Civilised, decent people do not behave like that… He [Atkinson] wouldn't come on dressed as an Imam and ridicule something in the Koran, he evidently thinks Christianity is a softer touch than Islam.’

And it claimed ‘It would not have been clear to someone unfamiliar with the scriptures what was from the Bible and what was not.’

However, the organisation did approve of one comic on the bill, noting: ‘That comedy can be clean, respectful and side-splittingly funny was shown earlier in the evening by Bill Bailey in a brilliant musical piece of solo stand-up comedy.’

When it was censured by the Adverting Standards Authority last month over its unsubstantiated claims that a vaccine against cervical cancer caused infertility in teenagers, Christian Voice was quick to complain that ‘freedom of speech and free expression of opinion’ should not be outlawed.

Here is Atkinson performing the sketch on an earlier tour.

Published: 12 Jan 2009

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