BBC Two, 14 June 2011
The complainant contacted the BBC having seen a clip from the BBC Two comedy Lead Balloon played on the BBC Breakfast programme. The complainant said that the clip treated a funeral service in an irresponsible manner and ridiculed the Catholic Mass.
The complainant said that this was offensive to Christians and questioned whether other religions would have been treated similarly. The complainant also wondered whether consideration had been given to the feelings of those who had been recently bereaved and had sought consolation in their faith. The complainant was concerned that all religions should be treated equally and respect shown, particularly in relation to the Crucifixion and the Holy Sacraments.
BBC Audience Services responded saying that the BBC recognised that many people had strong religious sensibilities and some might argue that religion should be off limits for humorists. The response said that while the BBC would never seek to mock the essence of religion or to cause offence, it was difficult to impose a single set of standards on which everyone could agree. The only realistic and fair approach was to ensure a broad range of comedy so that all viewers felt they were catered for at least some of the time.
The complainant wrote again, saying that he had been given what was probably a standard reply to anyone who made a complaint about the portrayal of religion in a programme. He said that he had not suggested that religion should beoff limits for humorists but objected to the mockery of those things which were at the heart of a particular religion, as the Sacrament of Holy Communion was for almost all Christians.
The Executive Editor, Comedy Commissioning, wrote to the complainant having discussed the complaint with the producers of the show. He explained the context of the scene, including details of the storyline and character development during successive series. He explained that the joke was firmly on Rick (the central character) whose vanity and sense of victimhood frequently led him to lie or dissemble in an attempt to manipulate his situation to his advantage, ending invariably in his own comic humiliation.
The episode in question had made it clear that Rick’s behaviour was unacceptable, other characters had expressly stated that he was wrong and he was punished for his behaviour by the storyline.
ECU Decision: Complaint not upheld
The complainant escalated his complaint to the Editorial Complaints Unit (ECU) at Stage 2 of the BBC’s complaints process, reiterating his view that it was inappropriate to ridicule a service of Holy Communion, the Mass, that this sacrament lay at the heart of Christian worship and that Christianity was not being treated equally with other religions.
The ECU’s Head of Editorial Complaints said that although the Mass depicted in the programme was briefly disrupted by the behaviour of the central character, Rick, it was he – not the ceremony or what it represented to believers – who was the object of ridicule. The Head of Editorial Complaints looked in more detail at the story, setting out the ways in which Rick’s hypocrisy was revealed during the episode, and concluded that there was nothing that ridiculed the Mass itself.
The Head of Editorial Complaints therefore did not uphold the complaint.
BBC Trust Decision: Appeal Not Pursued
The complainant wrote to the BBC Trust, observing that the previous stages of the complaints system all involved responses from BBC employees who, in the complainant’s view, had a vested interest in taking sides with the editorial team and delaying complaints in the hope that complainants would give up.
The Head of Editorial Standards thought it could reasonably be argued that the audience would have known what to expect of the series and, in particular, of the lead character, Rick, played by Jack Dee. The Head of Editorial Standards accepted that this type of humour would not have been to everyone’s taste, but suggested that there were plenty of signposts that would have allowed those likely to be offended to have selected alternative viewing ahead of the programme.
Turning to the Guidelines on Religion, the Head of Editorial Standards considered that the complainant had already received well-reasoned responses from both the Executive Editor, Comedy Commissioning, and the Head of Editorial Complaints. As they had both highlighted in some detail, it would be difficult to argue that the point of the episode was to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.
The Head of Editorial Standards regretted that the complainant was offended. However, she did not consider that the appeal had a reasonable prospect of success or that there was a case for the BBC Executive to answer.
The Committee agreed that the complainant had already received well-reasoned responses from the Executive Editor of Comedy Commissioning and the ECU’s Head of Editorial Complaints. The Committee noted the complainant’s view that the programme made a mockery of the act of taking the wafer during Mass; however, it agreed that it would be difficult to argue that the point of the episode was to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. The Committee did not agree that in portraying the main character choking on a wafer the Christian faith had been treated with contempt. The Committee concluded that an appeal on the grounds that the Editorial Guidelines on Religion had been breached did not have a reasonable prospect of success.
The Committee therefore decided this appeal did not qualify to proceed for consideration.