Oliver Callan: Sky Arts’ capitulation to the mob is cowardice

We don’t need permission from their families every time we parody public figures

Joseph Fiennes and Michael Jackson, whom he portrayed in Sky Arts’ satire  Urban Myths.

Joseph Fiennes and Michael Jackson, whom he portrayed in Sky Arts’ satire Urban Myths.

 

Before there was fake news, there was fake outrage. A melodrama of sedentary anger cast from the permanently irked against anyone with a different view. People now log into social media to find out what their opinions are, and there are only two nowadays. You’re either in favour of the fad, or against it. If you don’t know which side you’re on, it doesn’t matter because you’ll be told, in a cluster bomb of insults and poor grammar.

Fake outrage is used to declare something a controversy, provoking a faux apology and real embarrassment from the perpetrator of a comment, joke, idea, act – or anything really. Sky Arts – the arts channel of the eponymous broadcaster – has taken manufactured controversy to the next level by deciding to cancel an episode of its own satire show, Urban Myths, after online complaints about casting white actor Joseph Fiennes as Michael Jackson.

It’s an act of cowardly self-censorship at the behest of a mob who want nothing less than hagiography of their beloved celebrity. Social media fans of the icon, who range from the brainwashed to the barely washed, whipped up fury after seeing Fiennes do his squeaky turn in a trailer for the show. The final straw came when Jackson’s own daughter Paris tweeted: “I’m so incredibly offended by it, as I’m sure plenty of people are as well, and it honestly makes me want to vomit”.

Plenty about Michael Jackson offended people and also made them want to vomit, among them African Americans who felt his changing appearance seemed to express shame over his black roots. Paris Jackson happens to be white, but still has every right to be offended by something that promises to satirise her late father. She does not have the right to prevent its broadcast, however, just because she wants no criticism of him. If we needed permission from the families of public figures every time we wanted to parody them, satire would resemble the saccharine nonsense that passes for children’s TV nowadays.

At a time when popular fictional shows show unprecedented levels of violence, sexual violence, bad language and crime, it’s bizarre that portrayals of real-life figures and events are expected to be cleansed of anything that could offend. Urban Myths didn’t promise to be to be an insightful drama with a nuanced view of Jackson and his heritage, but a silly parody that sent-up his child-like weirdness. Surely a black actor whitening-up for the role would have actually hurt more and looked all wrong.

High-farce spoof

The Sky series is a high-farce spoof based on apocryphal stories like the one that Jackson car-pooled with Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor from New York to LA after 9/11. Brian Cox plays Brando in a fat suit and Stockard Channing is Taylor in similar caricature. That Michael Jackson looked white in 2001 is not a matter for debate. In the trailer for Urban Myths, Joseph Fiennes’s character actually looks like Jackson, who resembled a fairy corpse from Tim Burton’s imagination at that point.

Sky Arts were already damned after a mere trailer anyway, so they should have gone ahead and broadcast the episode and let the public decide. In the UK as in Ireland, there is a fleet of media watchdogs better placed to deal with taste, decency and incitement to hatred than idle tweeters.

If media organisations become meeker than the half-wit celebrity fans laying siege with small-scale social media reaction, the wider public will lose out. The programme was a satire, so it’s meant to offend. In the clamour to be politically correct, we’ve forgotten there are figures and groups that need to be offended. The dead star was a soft target, but the capitulation highlights the gentle treatment of major celebrities in our culture today. With the number of PR executives vastly outnumbering journalists, we’re treated only to sycophantic interviews on shows such as Graham Norton’s and Ellen’s.

So Tom Cruise tells harmless yarns and is never asked about the nasty undertone of Scientology in his career or the nasty undertone of his divorces. Casey Affleck is currently on a cheerful chat show campaign for an Oscar nomination, unchallenged by questions about alleged sexual harassment of two women in 2010.

Media need to reevaluate what constitutes a backlash substantial enough to merit an action as extreme as censorship. Satire goes into insensitive territory for good reason. The ability of vested interests to fake outrage, and the willingness of the petulant to join in, puts huge pressure on work that seeks the truth. The Sky Arts move could have detrimental consequences for what major corporations will produce in future, and a sanitising that leads to less reality and more spin in our noisy, inauthentic world.

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