Fewer than 10 complaints: Do Press-orchestrated Moral Panics even mean anything anymore?

I don't know if you saw Channel 4's 'The Big Fat Quiz of the Year 2012' Programme last week. If not, there's a link for it below:


I leave this, not to offend, but in true Daily Mail style, so that you can judge the offensiveness of the jokes before you decide how offended you should be by something you may or may not have seen over a week ago. 

 If you haven't heard about the latest way UK society is failing the Mail's standards, you clearly weren't in your local newsagents on January 1st (for whatever reason): splashed over the front page of the first DM of the year was the headline 'CHANNEL 4 AND THE SICK SHOW THEY CALL COMEDY'. In the following article, the paper attacked the show, saying it made 'countless vile sexual jokes' and 'puerile remarks', on subjects as diverse as Usain Bolt, Gerard Butler, Susan Boyle, and the Queen.

It drew specific attention to the red wine being drunk by comedians Jack Whitehall and James Corden, who made most of the jokes being objected to. They complained that, while the broadcaster had not specifically violated the watershed, they had shown the material too early, although the tone of the article itself seemed to suggest that material about whether or not 'Susan Boyle loves it in the ass' (a reference to the trending twitter hashtag #susanalbumparty) should not be broadcast at all. 

Now, you can't look at this story without thinking about past moral panics (I mean, Jonathan Ross was sitting two seats down from the pair in question), but this story has me worried for an entirely different reason. 24 hours after the programme was aired, OFCOM had received less than 10 complaints. To date, even with a DM front page splash, it has received about 80, with complaints made direct to the Channel doubling that to 160 (or 0.000019% of the population, to put it another way). And yet, this story has people in the TV industry running scared. One of the producers of the National Television Awards (where Whitehall is due to present a prize) has said he is afraid that the story will 'run and run'. 

The shadow of past issues like Sachsgate hang over their heads, threatening a tsunami of bad press. When I first heard about this story, my first thought was what detrimental impact this could have on UK comedy. But, thinking about it, I became more concerned about what stories like this mean for UK journalism. Because I think the impact there could be much, much more severe. 

One of the most important goals of the press is to reveal causes, to create campaigns the public can get behind: at their best, they are concentrated efforts to not only observe the world around us, but to make it a better place: it can be as crucial as the Thalydomide campaign, or as simple as a campaign to get fewer plastic bags left on a city's streets. But when a national newspaper, with a big circulation, like the DM, starts blowing a joke as innocuous as the use of the word 'wet' in a sentence referring to '50 Shades of Grey', the only thing it draws attention to is itself. It doesn't help that it seems determined to run with this item: they crow about the number of complaints received so far, and choose to headline an article 'Sick Comic Facing Axe', on the same day that producers claimed that they 'looked forward to welcoming him on January 23rd'. 

 I'm not saying the DM shouldn't be able to put report events the way it sees them, and I've no doubt many of their readers feel the same way. But, when they choose to blindly chase one avenue on a story about a handful of jokes in a 2 hour show that took place without directly violating any sort of regulation, they just invite other newspapers to write articles about their outrageous reaction. A couple have done just this: the Independent has commissioned its own poll, which found that only 5% of their 6000 strong test group agreed that the jokes had gone too far. The Guardian, like me, couldn't resist reminding its readers of the Daily Mail's habit of reprinting the offensive material 'in full on page 4'. Paul Dacre is frantically stirring his teacup, trying to whip up a storm. In the process, there's a small chance he could give the British public a display of press infighting, less than six months after the Leveson Inquiry was released. Even if he doesn't, and the rest of the press get behind any 'outcry' that may arise, its hardly the sort of thing to reassure the public that we're out there, focusing on 'the big issues', is it?

The British Public are looking for a cause to show them why our Press are still worthwhile. If you're going to launch a campaign, why not make it a good one?

  Here's a few of the articles about the programme in question: