How far can I go? A report from the offensiveness battlefront

Now and then, feeling unusually brave, I poke my head over the battlements in the Great Offensiveness War. Invariably, it gets shot off. Last year, I dared to suggest that when an oafish and ignorant ex-footballer is invited to appear on a TV reality show, it is a bit odd to complain when he behaves oafishly and ignorantly. I’m still being peppered by small-arms fire.

By an accident of timing, I have been on the front line again, experiencing  over the past week the various gradations offensiveness-anxiety that currently hold sway.

My two-part radio series Taboo Be Doo, which looks (nervously) at the politically incorrect music of the past 100 years (Radio 4, 10.30 on the morning of Saturday, 26 June) was being completed, with some delicate negotiations around the question of how offensive a programme about offensiveness could dare to be. A late drama commission, for the series From Fact to Fiction,  exposed me to other niggling worries about what is acceptable in 2011.

As I suggest in an essay in today’s Independent (and that’s the last casually self-promoting link), we like the idea today that we are more liberated and relaxed about taste than previous generations  – censorship, surely, is a thing of the past – but, in fact, we are every bit as constrained and nervous as our forbears.

Here is a brief summary of what I have learned over the past few days about where we stand in the Great Offensiveness War:

1. Complaint is king. There was a time when, if the majority of people enjoyed a song on the radio and a tiny minority objected, then the response of the broadcaster was in favour of tolerance. Now, as I discovered in interviews for Taboo Be Doo (and in negotiations about what could be broadcast), the complainer has the last word. In this great age of empathy, if someone is upset by something, he or she has the right to demand that the rest of us should not hear it  – however right or wrong he or she is.

2. Self-censorship is all around. There is no need, as there once was, for the BBC to have a board of censors on which the Head of Religious Broadcasting has a particularly influential voice. What Harriet Harman once called “the court of public opinion” ensures that song-writers play safe, avoiding irony or using that dangerous device, a narrator which is not themselves. Broadcasters, while not actually banning songs (which gives good publicity to the banned, and bad publicity to the banner) will quietly find reasons not to play them.

3. In the areas of copyright, libel and privacy, fear stalks the streets. In my playlet for From Fact to Fiction, which was called “The Gotcha Moment”, I was asked to write a 15-minute monologue, spoken by a newspaper editor who had just taken possession of 24,000 pages of very boring emails by Sarah Palin.

There were one or two little areas of worry, I was told. It might be sensible not to quote too much from the emails themselves for reasons of copyright. Oh, and I should be careful with what I wrote about Mrs Palin. In fact, maybe it would be safer to invent a fictional politician.

We talked it through, Mrs Palin stayed in the story, the actor Adrian Scarborough did a great job as reader and, as far as know, m’learned friends have not had to be consulted.

All the same, over the past week, I have found myself recalling Stephen Fry’s words about there being “a culture of fear” at the BBC. He may have been right about that – but, when it comes to the question of discussing or satirising bigotry or prejudice, that fearfulness is all around us.