Jerry Springer - the Operetta

by Betsy Grey

from Signs of the Times, No. 17 - Apr 2005

The Church of England Newspaper responded to Jerry Springer - the Opera by publishing two responses, from different perspectives. One was by Joel Edwards, the General Director of the Evangelical Alliance, and for the other they asked the MCU. Betsy Grey wrote it for us. The two articles were published on 14 January. This is the text of Betsy's article.

Hearing on the news the worryingly abusive language of Christians outside BBC Television Centre protesting about the screening of Jerry Springer - The Opera, or even reading the moderate views of others voicing deep concerns about the broadcast, raised, I thought, an interesting question.

Where, in all of this, was the condemnation of a prurient, sex-obsessed, voyeuristic society, which relishes the spectacle of disturbed and disadvantaged human beings making fools of themselves for the sake of five or ten minutes' fame on a television programme: people whose sad and disordered lives are exploited for the entertainment of the masses - us - and thus to the enormous financial benefit of the media barons who know better than anyone what makes good (i.e. profitable) television?

The answer, ironically, was in the show itself. For here, above all else - how could anyone miss this point? - was a satire; a send-up of so-called 'confessional' television, of which the Jerry Springer Show is reckoned by most to be the supreme example. In a BBC documentary preceding the showing of the hit West End musical - winner of a string of awards throughout 2003/2004 - Springer's bosses were themselves said to have wanted to suppress the show in its early days at the Edinburgh Festival. Could there be a firmer indication that the musical was intended as an attack on the values of a supposedly civilised society as reflected in the lowest common denominator television programmes, rather than an assault on the Christian religion?

But to raise another, closely-related, question - why do Christians not protest as vociferously against the relentless exploitation of their fellow human beings in the print or broadcast media? - is to stray from the main debate, which surely is whether any religious group has the right to seek to impose its views on the rest of society?

Regardless of the merits of the musical itself (and for what it's worth I found it mostly entertaining if in places a bit obscure - the second, supposedly blasphemous, half, even quite dull), and regardless almost of its intent, how can it be right to bring pressure to bear on a broadcasting company, to prevent others from seeing a show of which 'we' disapprove?

Of all the arguments put forward by the vociferous Christian protesters, two seem to me particularly spurious: firstly, that 'we Christians' pay our licence fee, so why should we not have a say in what's broadcast (as if Muslims and Hindus, and those of all faiths and none, do not and therefore should not), and the second that Jerry Springer - The Opera is okay for the theatre because people have to make a deliberate decision to go to a West End musical, but not for television because 'it comes into our living rooms.' It doesn't arrive, unbidden, over the airwaves, invading our lives and corrupting our minds. We do have the choice of simply not switching it on.

But even beyond all this, is the odd presumption that Christians have a duty to protect not only 'the nation' against a malevolent BBC, intent on ridiculing the Christian faith - which itself begs the question why would it want to - but even God himself.

In these early weeks of 2005 God has been hitting the headlines for very different reasons, namely his supposed role in the Asian tsunami. The question has been posed (as though it were new): 'How can a loving God who cares for the hair on every head of each individual, not only allow, but apparently inflict, such massive suffering on so many?'

The answer from leading clergy and theologians has been that there isn't an answer: that God is beyond our meagre human understanding. That if he were not, he wouldn't be God. That if we could comprehend him, we wouldn't need faith. A God on that scale surely needs no protection, even from the BBC.

But, as he sings in the opera: 'It ain't easy bein' me.'

He can say that again . . .

Betsy Grey is a former MCU Press Officer.