Why RTE’s ‘blasphemous’ comedy sketch was ethical

In the 1960s Catholic Bishops in Ireland complained about a light-hearted quiz on the Late Late Show, when a woman said that she might not have worn anything on her wedding night. In the 1970s RTE axed the television drama the Spike, after prudes complained that a scene of an art class briefly showed a nude model.

Not only has Irish society moved on since then, but we have removed the offence of blasphemy from our Constitution and laws. The Waterford Whispers News sketch on RTE is the first high profile consequence of the blasphemy referendum, and the Catholic Bishops are again flexing their political muscles.

Ireland has moved on from the days of the Bishop and Nightie and the Spike. We will continue to move on, regardless of how RTE responds to these complaints. I hope RTE defends itself.

But if RTE capitulates to the complaints, it will open a large can of worms regarding other programmes that are available on the RTE website as well as future programmes.

This article addresses:

  1. Why the complaints about this particular joke?
  2. Is there a right to not be offended?
  3. Would RTE ever show jokes about Islam?
  4. Can you ever make jokes about rape?
  5. Was this joke an ethically good joke?
  6. Summary

1. Why the complaints about this particular joke?

I believe that the complaints are primarily motivated by the target being a god about which RTE can now broadcast jokes. I believe that other arguments against the joke have been tagged on to that concern, and they would not have arisen (certainly to the same extent) if the target had not been a god.

Independently of the god sketch, the same show also included jokes about xenophobia, death, underage sex, sex trafficking, shootouts with police, drug addiction, and alcoholism. There has been no similar public outcry about these jokes.

The Young Offenders, a popular award-winning RTE sitcom, has jokes about violent crime, alcoholism, parents abusing children, underage pregnancy, and school bullying. There was no similar public outcry about those jokes.

RTE shows featuring Tommy Tiernan, David McSavage, and the puppets Podge and Rodge, have also made jokes about many controversial and sensitive topics. But it is jokes about gods that generate the high profile complaints.

As the blasphemy arguments against this joke ran out of steam, three other related arguments arose: that it was offensive, that RTE would never broadcast jokes about Islam, and that you should never joke about rape. Let’s look at these arguments.

2. Is there a right to not be offended?

The second related argument to arise was that the joke was offensive. As RTE said in its first response to the complaints,

“Matters which can cause offence naturally differ from person to person, within comedy and satire in particular.”

2.1 The BAI Code of Programme Standards includes:

“From the Foreword — Not only is there no right not to be offended, it will be unavoidable that a programme service that captures the full richness of life and that seeks to address the entire range of topics of concern to the audience will contain material which will be a source of offence to some. There is an obligation on broadcasters to be provocative and to contribute to the awareness that a society has of itself, of its dynamic and changing character and of its place in the modern world.”

“From the Objectives — To acknowledge the diversity of tastes and interests that exist in contemporary Irish society and to encourage and facilitate broadcasting that caters for this diversity.”

“Page 10 — This may sometimes involve making programmes that may cause offence to viewers and listeners but are justified for creative, editorial or other reasons. This principle acknowledges the importance of editorial independence and freedom and the entitlement of audiences to a diverse range of programming.”

“Page 16 — Show due respect for religious views, images, practices and beliefs in programme material. This is not intended to prevent the critical scrutiny of religion by means of information, drama or other programming.”

2.2 RTE’s Content Guidelines include:

“9.2 Tolerance of the Diversity of Belief — Diverse religious voices should be part of the national conversation reflected in RTÉ’s content, including those of people who are agnostic or atheistic.”

“9.3 It is, of course, acceptable (and indeed, on occasions, in the public interest) to examine critically religious beliefs, institutions and individuals, whether in factual programmes, dramas, news and other genres of output.”

“9.4 A balance has to be struck between avoiding giving offence and freedom of expression, and undue offence should be avoided at all times.”

“12.1 No one has a right not to be offended. When providing diverse content to a diverse audience, offence may be caused to some people. Offence is largely subjective and varies from person to person. The key issue is ‘undue offence’ – content that crosses a line resulting in a person being unduly offended.”

I suggest that the bar for undue offence with regard to religion should be high, given that the people of Ireland have recently voted after a lengthy national debate to remove the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution.

2.3 Council of Europe’s Venice Commission

The Council of Europe’s Venice Commission has said that it must be possible to criticise religious ideas, even if such criticism may be perceived by some as hurting their religious feelings.

The Council of Europe in its Handbook of Freedom of expression stated that:

“Satirical expression has also been granted special protection by the Court. Satire is a form of artistic expression and social commentary and, due to its inherent features of exaggeration and distortion of reality, naturally aims to provoke and agitate. Any interference with an artist’s right to such expression must be examined with particular care.”

There are over 150 different religions in Ireland. This means that RTE will have a lot of apologising to do to when members of any of these religions find something offensive. RTE can’t have a policy of just apologising to the religious majority.

The only reasons that RTE should refuse to broadcast satire are the quality and editorial relevance of the content, if it is defamatory to identifiable individuals, or if it incites violence or another crime.

This joke was broadcast after the watershed time for adult content. However, there is a decent editorial argument that, on a New Year’s Eve countdown, RTE should show only ethically good jokes, and should show them even if they are offensive to some people.

3. Would RTE ever show jokes about Islam?

The second related argument to arise was that RTE would never broadcast jokes about Islam. This is not correct. Even on the show that people are complaining about, the Islamic Allah is theologically the same character as the God that is the target of the sketch.

Here are two other examples of RTE sketches making jokes about Islam.

Tommy Tiernan starts this interview by mock-worshipping Imam Umar Al-Qadri, then asks him to explain his hat, then later when Umar says he will recite something from the Quran, Tommy says “You’re not going to blow up now after this, are you?”

Here’s a sketch from the Savage Eye mocking Islam for the cruelty of Halal meat, not eating ham, and doing a ventriloquist act while wearing a niqab.

There are many other things to discuss about these sketches, but that is for another day. I present them here only to show that it is not correct to say that RTE would never broadcast jokes about Islam.

4. Can you ever make jokes about rape?

The third related argument to arise was that you can never make jokes about rape, and by extension about other serious injustices and tragedies. This argument does not stand up to scrutiny either.

Firstly, jokes do not have to be ethical. They can just be funny. Also, you can make ethically good jokes about any topic, including controversial and sensitive ones.

A joke that refers to something bad is not condoning that bad thing. Indeed it can be targeting and satirising people who do condone the bad thing.

The phrase dark humour was coined by French theorist Andre Breton, who credited Irish cleric and writer Jonathan Swift as the originator of the genre.

Even among victims, dark humour about serious crimes and personal tragedies can be a positive cathartic response to injustice and suffering. Some examples:

  • When I campaigned against IRA and loyalist terrorism, peace campaigners shared dark jokes about terrorist atrocities that would have offended other people.
  • When my wife Anne was dying of cancer, she encouraged people to joke about her illness as a way of breaking through awkwardness in talking about her coming death.
  • A few years ago, the satirical feminist website Reductress devoted its home page to articles joking about rape such as ‘I Anonymously Reported My Rape for the Anonymous Attention.’

It is of course reasonable to complain about aspects of specific jokes about any topic. But it is not reasonable to argue for any topic that you can never make a joke about it.

5. Was this joke an ethically good joke?

Although this joke was broadcast after the watershed time for adult content, there is a decent editorial argument that, on a New Year’s Eve countdown, RTE should show only ethically good jokes, and should show them even if they are offensive to some people.

So was this an ethically good joke?

In America, the Amy Schumer Show had a very funny sketch in which a new high school football coach introduces a controversial rule that his players cannot rape girls. The boys try and fail to find unethical loopholes in this new rule, and some adults from the local community take the side of the boys, because they are local heroes.

This is clearly a joke that challenges rape by mocking lenient attitudes to rape. It is an ethically good joke.

The Waterford Whispers News sketch is similar. In the Bible story, a stranger comes into a child’s bedroom and tells her she is to become pregnant, and the child agrees despite being afraid, confused, and not understanding the situation. In the comedy sketch, the person who impregnates the child is arrested, but he goes free after his court case.

This is clearly also a joke that challenges rape by mocking lenient attitudes to rape. It is an ethically good joke.

6. Summary

This was an ethically good joke, despite it offending people who were not similarly offended by the jokes on the same show about xenophobia, death, underage sex, sex trafficking, shootouts with police, drug addiction, and alcoholism.

Ireland has moved on from the days of the Bishop and Nightie and the Spike. We will continue to move on, regardless of how RTE responds to these complaints. I hope that RTE defends itself.

But if RTE capitulates to the complaints, it will open a large can of worms regarding other programmes that are available on the RTE website as well as future programmes.

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3 Comments

  1. Fantastic article, NO TO CENSORSHIP by anyone. Eamon Martin lives in Armagh, in a big house, bigger than most houses, I bet anyone the price of an RTE License Fee that he hasn’t paid it.

  2. Great article, Michael. Well thought out, well laid out and up to your usual (very) high standard.
    Well done.

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