Rowan Atkinson Archbishop of Canterbury sketch cleared by Ofcom

Ofcom have cleared a Comic Relief sketch featuring Rowan Atkinson which satirised the Archbishop of Canterbury.  The sketch, in which Atkinson played a fictional Archbishop of Canterbury, attracted more than 2,200 complaints to the BBC.  However, Ofcom have decided that the sketch was not in breach of the broadcasting code.  The British Humanist Association (BHA) has welcomed Ofcom’s decision.

In the sketch, Atkinson said that prayer ‘doesn’t work’ and compared Jesus’ disciples to a boy band.  Approximately a quarter of the complaints made to the BBC were related to religious offence (the rest were concerned with the use of bad language before the watershed).  As a result of the complaints, the BBC withdrew a follow-up clip which was due to be broadcast later that evening, removed the sketch from the iPlayer, and issued an apology.  However, Ofcom decided that ‘the intention of the sketch was to create humour rather than seriously deride Christianity.’  In 2009, Ofcom also cleared an earlier sketch by Atkinson broadcast on ITV, in which he played a vicar who claimed that Jesus was good at party tricks.  This attracted 540 complaints, but Ofcom ruled that the tone of the sketch was ‘affectionate and not abusive to the Christian religion’.

Pavan Dhaliwal, BHA Head of Public Affairs, commented ‘Having freedom of expression includes the freedom to criticise religious beliefs, and that includes the ability to use satire and ridicule.  It is absurd, in a country which is increasingly non-religious, that a tiny number of religious activists are able to force the national broadcaster to apologise for a comedy sketch which was light-hearted, and which could not have been seriously interpreted as an attack on the Christian faith.  As we have frequently said before, the BBC too often takes a deferential attitude towards religion (we made this criticism in our submission to the BBC’s impartiality review, which will be published tomorrow).  In this particular instance, the BBC was too quick to apologise, and should have stood its ground.’

Notes

For further comment or information contact Pavan Dhaliwal, Head of Public Affairs at pavan@humanism.org.uk or on 0773 843 5059.

BBC News – Rowan Atkinson Comic Relief sketch cleared by Ofcom: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-23125495

Radio Times – Rowan Atkinson’s “Archbishop of Canterbury” Comic Relief routine receives more than 2,000 complaints (includes the full text of the sketch): http://www.radiotimes.com/news/2013-03-18/rowan-atkinsons-archbishop-of-canterbury-comic-relief-routine-receives-more-than-2000-complaints

The Guardian – Rowan Atkinson Jesus sketch cleared by Ofcom after 540 complaints: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2009/jan/13/rowan-atkinson-jesus-sketch-cleared-ofcom

Read more about the BHA’s work on Free speech and Expression: http://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/human-rights-and-equality/free-speech-and-expression/

The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.

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