Was it the Mail wot done it?

Russell Brand and Johnathan Ross have caused a storm of controversy rarely seen by the desensitised eyes of the MTV generation.

Their prank calls to Fawlty Towers actor Andrew Sachs have met with condemnation from the PM and the BBC have received more than 10,400 complaints from outraged listeners and Daily Mail readers.

While blame is still being bandied around like a hot potato, Brand has apologsied (in his own special way) on his Radio 2 show, saying “sometimes you mustn’t swear on someone’s answerphone and that is why I would like to apologise personally”. Although excusing himself by saying “it was quite funny”.

To many this apology-of-sorts may sound like too little too late. Ross’s quip that Brand had “fucked” Sachs’ granddaughter, Georgina Baillie, and that Sachs might hang himself as a result of the message was not exactly easy listening. But the fact is that before the Daily Mail launched a campaign to have them fired, only two complaints had been made about the show, neither of them related to the messages.

Brand is no stranger to disapproval, after receiving death threats for calling George Bush a “retarded cowboy” when hosting this year’s MTV Awards in the US. But in a country that spawned one half of Gilbert & George and which deems Tracey Emin’s condom-littered bed “art”, it seems bizarre that an adolescent prank should provoke such a conservative blacklash.

While the UK airwaves are held to account by industry standards and moral censure from the prudishness of middle England, offence is the virtual currency of the UK art world. British Muslim artist Sarah Maple, currently exhibiting at the SaLon Gallery, Notting Hill, London, is a case in point.

Winner of the 4 Sensations prize, awarded to the “most imaginative and talented artists graduating in the U.K” by Channel 4 and the Saatchi Gallery, Maple has become the darling of the art world by depicting Muslim women holding pigs, sucking bananas suggestively and a photo of herself wearing a t-shirt that says: “I heart Jihad“.

Maple said: “I’m questioning the way some Muslims interpret the faith…It’s a quite serious thing, and then I make light of it, and I think a lot of people find that unsettling. But then they grow to like it.”

While Maple’s work has been met with criticism from the British Muslim community, it has seen nothing approaching the condemnation surrounding Brand and Ross. Has free speech in the UK been so disabled by self-censure that we’ve lost the last bastion of Britishness: our sense of humour?


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October 2008
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