TERRY PRONE: Defending Blindboy Boatclub’s free speech and ‘haunted bread’

Respect may be vouchsafed, out of good manners. But demanding it — particularly of a comedian in a plastic bag — may be unrealistic, writes Terry Prone

Blindboy Boatclub

A week and one day ago, my friend Nameless went, as he always does, to Mass in his local church in Naas. He was impressed by the vigour and passion of the sermon, delivered by a priest in, he figured, his early forties. The priest was angry about the Late Late Show’s final item the Friday before. This item involved three people discussing religion and other things. The priest was infuriated by how he perceived it reflecting on the Catholic Church. In his sermon, he outlined the reasons for his anger and told parishioners that a letter they might sign was available at the back of the church, together with a transcript of the offending item, and he would collect the signed letters at the end of Mass.

My friend Nameless duly picked up and read the letter and the transcript, while he watched the behaviour of the rest of the congregation, roughly a hundred of whom, or perhaps a quarter of them, picked up the letter, signed it, appended their addresses, and handed it to the priest as they left the church. My friend Nameless saved his copy of the letter and shared it with me. Here it is.

“I the undersigned wish to express that I was greatly offended by the content of the discussion between David Chambers, Stephanie Pressner (sic), and Michael Harding with host Ryan Tubridy on Friday 6th of January.

“The BAI Code of Standards requires broadcasters to ‘show respect for religious views, images, practices, and beliefs in programme material’.”

“Mr Tubridy failed in his duty as presenter to maintain balance to the discussion and uphold the requirements of the BAI.

“The term ‘haunted bread’ was particularly offensive. Rather than pointing out that many people wouldn’t appreciate the Eucharist being referred to in such a manner, Mr Tubridy added to the offense by saying it was ‘a great expression’.

I acknowledge people’s rights to express their views. However, as a practising Catholic, I expect something as sacred as the ‘Body of Christ’ to receive respect in any discussion, rather than to be mocked as at was [sic] on the Late Late Show.”

These letters were directed to the Late Late Show, rather than to the director general or the controller of programmes, but no doubt have found their way to each of them, that being the way RTÉ works. It’s unclear if the priest involved plans to make a complaint directly to the BAI.

Having seen the particular programme, I found this reaction interesting on a number of fronts. First of all, I discovered that David Chambers is the name of the comedian generally known as Blindboy Boatclub, whose modus operandi is to wear a plastic bag over his face. Although it might not be safe to assume that’s his name, given that, in the letter and the transcript supplied by the priest, the first and second name of Stefanie Preissner were mis-spelled. (This is more than minor. Respect for others starts with them as individual humans, long before their beliefs get addressed, and acknowledging individual humanity is expressed in the most basic way by getting their name right.)

The second aspect of the priest’s reaction that was striking was his anger at the use of the term “haunted bread”. On the night, when the guy in the plastic bag referred to this concept, I had no idea what he was on about, so was not immediately offended by the reference. Mr Chambers then offered an explanation.

“They are asking us to eat the ghost of a 2,000-year-old carpenter,” he said, with “they” referring to the Catholic Church. “And then at the same time, he is not only a ghost; he is actually real and it’s a ghost and is human flesh at the same time.”

That, according to the transcript helpfully supplied in the church, is how Blindboy explained the use of the “haunted bread” reference, which certainly made the issue somewhat clearer. Shorn of the plastic bag and the apparent offence of the original phrase, what the comedian did was articulate a mystery within Catholic belief and question it. He didn’t actually condemn it or use abusive terminology to scotch it, although, as a comedian, that might have been expected of him. He just outlined his understanding of a central tenet of Catholicism. Mr Tubridy could have stated the obvious; that a lot of people are happy with this belief, but what would that have achieved? If something is being presented as ludicrous, then the fact that many people believe in it is unlikely to convert those who believe the opposite.

Fr Kevin McNamara. Pic: Eamonn Keogh

It will be interesting to see if the BAI moves on this issue. Having, back in pre-history, served on the BAI, I now wonder if that demand for broadcasting respect for religion might be due for re-examination. Religion is a belief system based on a god or gods. But broadcasters are not enjoined to respect ALL belief systems, particularly if those belief systems conflict with science.

So if the Irish Cancer Society comes on a radio or TV programme, as it has, to warn that women are going to die in the near future in significant numbers because their parents bought into the lie that the HPV virus is dangerous, then the presenter of the programme doesn’t have to rein in the Irish Cancer Society with comments like, “But many people would not appreciate you describing their passionate beliefs in a contemptuous way.” If the presenter of the programme were — motivated by the instinct to play devil’s advocate — to say something along those lines, the Irish Cancer Society spokesperson mightn’t dismissively say “tough,” but they’d be entitled to. Fear of the HPV virus may be part of someone’s value system, the same way as belief in cupping or meditation or echinacea may be part of someone’s value system, but that doesn’t earn it broadcasting respect.

Why, then, should propositions that objectively make no sense earn broadcasting respect just because the beliefs are attached to a God? If I go on the Late Late Show and tell Mr Tubridy that teenage girls should live on air because Zeus, my god, says so, any parent of teenage girls will want a panellist present, who says the idea is crazier than a bag of spanners and dangerous with it and I should shut the hell up. But were that to happen, would the BAI have to demand respect for my manifestly loopy notions because I proclaim them to be part of a religion? To someone outside the Catholic Church, the proposition that a round piece of unleavened bread turns into the real, not the metaphorical body and blood of a man who died more than two thousand years ago makes no sense and is deserving of no respect. Respect may be vouchsafed, out of good manners. But demanding it — particularly of a comedian in a plastic bag — may be unrealistic.

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