No Surprise Sprung in Springer Blasphemy Action

The High Court in England has recently upheld a decision not to allow a private prosecution for blasphemous libel against the producer and broadcaster of Jerry Springer: the Opera.

The opera, and its subsequent showing on BBC, had upset various Christian groups who felt that using biblical figures as chats show guests in a parody of the US chat show, was contemptuous and reviling of Christianity.

Section 2(1) of the Theatres Act 1968 makes it an offence to perform an obscene play. A play will be considered obscene where, taken as whole, it has the effect of depraving and corrupting persons in attendance.

The Crown Prosecution Service had not prosecuted either the producers of the opera or the BBC, so an application to bring a private prosecution for “blasphemous libel” was made by an organisation called Christian Voice. However, that application failed for two reasons.

Firstly, the offence of blasphemous libel is a common law offence (i.e. part of our law by custom, not by Act of Parliament) and common law prosecutions for plays considered obscene, indecent, or contrary to public decency are prevented by section 2(4) of Theatres Act. (Similar provisions are contained in the Broadcasting Act 1990 preventing such prosecutions for broadcasts.)

Secondly, even if this was not the case, the court did not feel there was a prima facie case of blasphemous libel. This type of offence is rarely prosecuted in England, and in Scotland common law charges for blasphemy have not been prosecuted for some time.