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Bennett defends Corporation’s artistic freedom

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Jana Bennett, the BBC’s director of television, has defended the Corporation’s right to commission work that will “surprise and sometimes shock” and has called on broadcasters to stand firm against pressure from lobby groups.

Following the protests over the decision to screen Jerry Springer – The Opera, which attracted a record 49,000 complaints and saw both her and BBC2 controller, Roly Keating, threatened at their homes, Bennett warned that broadcasters were “coming under more pressure than at any time since the Eighties”.

She said: “It is now easy for small numbers of protesters to organise what may appear to be mass protests. It is not clear how many emails originated from Britain and how many from America and other parts of the world. But more importantly, we are not running some kind of Pop Idol competition in which the greatest number of votes gets a programme pulled from the schedule.”

Critical of the rise of fundamentalist attitudes to television in the US, particularly following Janet Jackson’s controversial appearance on the Superbowl last year, she said: “Giving these activists the power to restrict freedom of expression is a slippery slope.”

Bennett also pointed to the cancellation of the play Behzti, following violent protest at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, as a blow that could have a dangerous impact on willingness to risk controversy in the arts.

She added it was the Corporation’s responsibility as a public service broadcaster to uphold the rights of audiences to see works of the highest artistic quality. She said: “With drama it is important to signal the perspective that a controversial programme is taking and show clarity of authorship.”

Her speech made at St Anne’s College, Oxford follows criticism from shadow culture secretary John Whittingdale over a drama about the 1984-85 miners’ strike shown on BBC1 earlier this week. Whittingdale said the programme, Faith, was a clear example of ‘institutional bias’ by the BBC and should not be shown when an a general election was widely expected in May.

* Culture secretary Tessa Jowell is expected to recommend maintaining the BBC licence fee in the government’s green paper charting the future of the Corporation, which is published this week.

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