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Ofcom rules Atkinson’s “blasphemous” clergyman sketch did not breach code

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A sketch featuring Rowan Atkinson as a Christian clergyman that attracted more than 500 complaints when broadcast on ITV has escaped censure from media regulator Ofcom.

The sketch formed part of We Are Most Amused, a special comedy gala performance held to mark the 60th birthday of the Prince of Wales, and featured Atkinson delivering a comedic version of a biblical miracle story.

After its broadcast, 540 people complained, claiming the sketch was offensive and blasphemous.

In response, Ofcom said comedy has “a long tradition of tackling challenging and sensitive subjects, such as religion” and added: “It is important and necessary, in line with freedom of expression, that broadcasters can explore such matters. Therefore broadcasters are free to include treatments, comedic or otherwise, of any religion, as long as they comply with the code.”

It said broadcasters must ensure that they apply “generally accepted standards” by ensuring that members of the public are given adequate protection from offensive material.

In this case, it said the context of the programme “was clear and justified the broadcast of this item”.

“In particular, this was a comedy sketch, by a performer well-known for his depictions of clergymen in comedic situations. The sketch was an absurd interpretation of a well-known biblical miracle story, and was not intended as a serious interpretation of Christian belief, nor would it be realistic to make such an inference. It superimposed onto the original story, the concept of how some people might react today, if Jesus were to appear in modern society,” Ofcom ruled.

It concluded that the overall tone of the sketch was “affectionate and not abusive of the Christian religion” and was therefore not in breach of its code, which says that material that may cause offence must be justified by the context.

Elsewhere, BBC’s Casualty was found to have breached the regulator’s code, after five people complained about a storyline shown over two nights that featured a nurse impaled on a stake and a woman hit by an ambulance.

The episodes in question started before the 9pm watershed and continued beyond it.

Ofcom said: “Programmes which straddle the watershed should not normally show graphic and/or significantly stronger material after 9pm that is unsuitable for an audience inherited from before the watershed. This is because children and their parents may be unprepared for significantly stronger material at the end of a programme that had started to watch together as a family some time before 9pm.”

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