Our fear-ridden culture


Free speech, libel, self-censorship, religious sensitivities – it’s a minefield. Sikh journalist Hardeep Singh, who’s been on both sides of the divide, tries to find a path through

–   by Hardeep Singh   –

Earlier this year playwright and scriptwriter Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti accused executives at the BBC of an “extraordinary” act of censorship. Bhatti was objecting to the fact that a line she had written for an episode of the Radio 4 drama DCI Stone had been cut, on the grounds that it could be considered offensive. The episode in question, Heart of Darkness, concerned the murder of a teenage girl and touched on issues of honour violence in the Muslim community. The offending line – “There is so much pressure in our [Muslim] community, to look right and to behave right” – was excised on the advice of the compliance department who adduced that it could “create the suggestion that all Muslims condoned honour killings”.

Bhatti refuted the idea that the line was offensive and berated the corporation for bowing down to “our fear-ridden culture.” Her accusation gains some force in the light of the admission by the then outgoing Director General of the BBC Mark Thompson, who in 2012, admitted that the fatwa against Rushdie, the 11 September terror attacks and the murder of Theo Van Gogh had made broadcasters realise that religious controversies could lead to murder or significant criminal acts. He revealed that BBC producers had to consider the possibility not merely of receiving complaints but now, also, “violent threats”, a change he dramatized in the difference between letters which say “I complain in the strongest possible terms” and those that say “I complain in the strongest possible terms and I am loading my AK47 as I write.”

It’s not the first time Bhatti has been involved in a controversy over religious sensitivity. It was her play Bezhti (dishonor), which focused on sexist attitudes within the Sikh community, that led to protest and denunciations in 2004 and was taken off stage in light of these protests. I remember this well, because I empathised with the protestors at the time. Many Sikhs felt outraged at the way the play depicted scenes of rape inside a gurdwara or Sikh temple. Generally the protestors had no issue with the idea of a Sikh character committing rape. Concerns were raised primarily about the backdrop being a gurdwara. Was this necessary or unnecessarily provocative? The promotional poster showing a woman holding a large pair of knickers was repugnant. What added to the sense of grievance was the ill-conceived promotional byline: “a new black comedy that reveals just how many secrets can be hidden in a Sikh temple.”

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