Tuesday 21 October 2014

Tuning in for a shock

Paul Whitington

Published 29/04/2012 | 06:00

Julian Assange's interview with an anti-Semitic leader is just the latest show to push out the viewing boundaries of discomfort, says Paul Whitington

WikiLeaks founder and guerrilla whistleblower Julian Assange certainly doesn't shy away from the limelight.

He is currently stranded in southern England while he awaits the outcome of a legal battle surrounding his possible extradition to Sweden, where he's accused of serious sexual assaults.

A scandal like that would take the wind out of most sails, but last week Julian launched a controversial new TV chat show on the Russian channel RT.

'The World Tomorrow' will feature in-depth conversations with politicians and polemicists from around the world.

In the first episode Julian chatted amiably and shared a joke with Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader and a man who has called the Holocaust a "legend" and pledged his commitment to the destruction of Israel.

All of this happened virtually, with Julian asking questions from his English bunker and Hassan answering them from a secret location in Lebanon.

Julian may have hoped the new show will go some way to rebuilding his public image, which has been tarnished by the Swedish allegations and by his 2010 decision to leak masses of secret government documents, including battlefield reports from Iraq and Afghanistan.

But interviewing a man such as Hassan Nasrallah on a TV station backed by Vladimir Putin's Kremlin and bristling with anti-American bias may not have been the best way to go about it.

The US media was not impressed: a right-wing commentator called him "a Russian agent in a war against the US", and the 'New York Times' rather snidely suggested that "the Kardashians could be next" on his guest list.

Julian's show does make for wonderfully controversial television, though, and is available online.

It also shows how much TV has changed since its early days, and now how hard it is to shock.

In 2012, Julian Assange has to interview an anti-Semitic terrorist to get attacked in the American media, but back in the 1950s all Elvis had to do was shake his hips.

When Elvis was invited to appear on NBC's 'Milton Berle Show' on June 5, 1956, the singer became the subject of an indignant media storm when he stopped dead during a performance of 'Hound Dog' and launched into a sensual version of the song accompanied by slow, grinding hip movements.

The outcry was instant: Ben Gross of the 'New York Daily News' accused Elvis of indulging in "the kind of animalism that should be confined to dives and bordellos", and TV host Ed Sullivan declared the singer "unfit for family viewing".

The public, however, begged to differ, and Ed was later forced to eat his words and invite Elvis on to his CBS talk show.

That passed for controversy in the 1950s, and it seems pretty harmless compared with the insidious racism that greeted the arrival of civil rights on American television in the late 1960s.

When blonde British singer Petula Clark touched the arm of her black guest, Harry Belafonte, during a duet on a 1968 NBC special, the show's sponsors, Chrysler, demanded they cut the touch for fear of 'offending' the racist sensibilities of southern viewers.

The touch stayed in, and some viewers did complain.

By the late 1960s, the old music-hall act of white performers painting their faces to sing so-called 'negro' numbers had begun to seem dubious, and the BBC's long-running variety series 'The Black and White Minstrel Show, was petitioned by activists.

Amazingly, it continued till 1978, and I remember the embarrassing sight of white singers in 'blackface' crooning songs on TV in the 'dem, dat, dose' diction that was presumably intended to be African.

Casual racism persisted on British television through the 1970s, on comic shows such as 'Love Thy Neighbour' that featured white characters calling black ones 'sambo' and 'nig-nog'.

The right-wing British press didn't complain much about any of that, but they had conniptions when the Sex Pistols appeared on Granada TV's early evening chat show 'Today', in December 1976.

'Today' was broadcast live and uncensored, and after host Bill Grundy encouraged the punk band to "say something outrageous", guitarist Steve Jones called Grundy a "dirty sod" and a "dirty f***er".

The broadcast ended in chaos, with Bill joining in the cursing himself. The show was canned and Bill's career was destroyed, but the Sex Pistols briefly prospered.

Things were a little tamer on US TV at that time, where a complaint by an organisation calling itself the National Federation for Decency about excessive "jiggling" of female body parts on shows such as 'Charlie's Angels' was enough to persuade Sears Roebuck to pull all their ads off the ABC network.

An even more absurd controversy would emerge in 1988, when one Donald Wildmon, a Mississippi minister and spokesman for the American Family Association, attacked a scene in the kids' cartoon 'Mighty Mouse' in which the rodent crushed the petals of a flower and sniffed them up, in apparent simulation of cocaine snorting.

Despite the makers' protests, CBS cut the offending segment.

Madonna always had a talent for getting up people's noses. Her 1986 video for the song 'Papa Don't Preach' sparked off a nasty debate between feminists and Christian fundamentalists about the rights and wrongs of teen pregnancy.

And her 1989 video for 'Like a Prayer', which was laden with Catholic imagery and featured her making love to a saint, lost her a lucrative ad campaign with Pepsi.

On Irish TV, controversies have tended to erupt on the good old 'Late Late Show'. There was the 'nightie affair' in 1966, when an incensed Bishop objected to married couples discussing their wedding nights with Gay Byrne, and the 'lesbian nuns' bun fight of 1985.

Then there was the notorious Annie Murphy interview of 1992, when Gaybo came down hard on the woman who'd borne the child of Bishop Eamonn Casey.

Peter Brooke destroyed his political career in 1992 by appearing on the show and giving a rousing rendition of 'Oh My Darling, Clementine' on the same day as seven Protestants had been killed by an IRA bomb.

But the classic 'Late Late' controversy has to be Padraig Flynn's 1999 appearance to moan about how hard his life was, a wonderfully misjudged performance

Poor old Janet Jackson ended up in the eye of a storm after her breast popped out due to an apparent wardrobe malfunction during a half-time duet with Justin Timberlake at the 2004 Super Bowl.

The inadvertent flash was broadcast live to millions of American homes and you'd think she'd killed someone, so intense was the ensuing outrage of the Christian right.

Things are a little more relaxed on Channel 4. In 2002, the channel fielded a record number of complaints over its screening of a public autopsy by controversial anatomist Gunther von Hagens.

And it gets worse. In 2004, Channel 4 aired a documentary called 'Animal Passions', which interviewed various charming individuals who practise zoophilia, or sex with animals.

Now that is shocking.

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