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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 December 2007, 15:38 GMT
Springer opera court fight fails
David Soul in Jerry Springer - The Opera
David Soul played Jerry Springer in the BBC Two broadcast
A Christian group has lost its High Court battle to prosecute the BBC's director general over the screening of Jerry Springer - The Opera in 2005.

Christian Voice director Stephen Green had hoped to overturn a previous ruling by a judge which forbade him from prosecuting Mark Thompson.

Two judges ruled that broadcasters and theatres staging live productions could not be prosecuted for blasphemy.

The BBC called the ruling an important decision in defence of free speech.

The corporation received a record 63,000 complaints when the musical - a satire based on US TV host Jerry Springer's controversial talk show - was broadcast on BBC Two in January 2005.

It also received many messages of support for screening the musical, which includes scenes set in Hell with Jesus and Satan.

Mr Green had said the show "clearly crossed the blasphemy threshold".


However, the two senior judges at the High Court said the 1968 Theatres Act prevented any prosecution for blasphemy in relation to public performances of plays.

The 1990 Broadcasting Act, they continued, prevented any prosecution in relation to broadcasts.

Mark Thompson
Mark Thompson defended broadcasting the show on TV
They said it was reasonable to conclude Jerry Springer - The Opera "in context" could not be considered as blasphemous, as it was not aimed at Christianity, but was a parody of the chat show genre.

In a statement issued following the ruling, the BBC said it had taken the decision to broadcast Jerry Springer - The Opera after "the most careful consideration".

"We believe the work, taken in its proper context, satirises and attacks exploitative chat shows and not the Christian religion," it said. "The court's judgement today vindicates that decision in full.

"Today's decision addresses the way the law of blasphemy applies to broadcasters, and the Court has found that criminal prosecutions for blasphemy should not be permitted in relation to broadcasts.

"This is an important decision in the defence of free speech. We, of course, believe that broadcasters should continue to exercise great care and sensitivity when dealing with potential religious offence, and that has not changed."

'Protecting the constitution'

Mr Green had hoped to overturn District Judge Caroline Tubbs' refusal at the City of Westminster Magistrates' Court in January to issue a summons against Mr Thompson, who allowed the controversial show to be screened.

David Soul in Jerry Springer - The Opera
The mock-opera featured Jesus as a guest on Springer's TV show
Mr Green had also wanted to prosecute the show's producer, Jonathan Thoday, who staged a nationwide tour of the show between October 2003 and July 2006.

Solicitors for Christian Voice urged the two High Court judges to allow the blasphemy prosecution to go ahead.

Speaking in court Michael Gledhill QC, appearing for Mr Green, said: "This is not just about protecting the rights of a section of the Christian population.

"It is about protecting the constitution of the nation which is built on the Christian faith."

David Pannick QC, representing Mr Thompson, said Judge Tubbs had acted within her powers and "made the only decision she could lawfully have made".

While religious beliefs were integral to British society, "so is freedom of expression, especially to matters of social and moral importance," said Mr Pannick.

'Outdated laws'

Mr Green said he would seek to appeal against Wednesday's ruling, which he described as a "carte blanche to blaspheme".

"I hope and pray the House of Lords will uphold the totality of the law against blasphemy and allow the prosecution to proceed."

But the decision was welcomed by human rights pressure group Liberty, who said it had "critically weakened outdated blasphemous libel laws".

"Today's ruling is a blow to bigotry," said the group's legal officer Anna Fairclough. "The obvious next step is to repeal this outdated offence."

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