Has Channel 4 gone too far?

STEVE DOWNES Channel 4 is no stranger to controversy. But by riding roughshod over royalty and apparently besmirching the memory of the enduringly popular Diana, Princess of Wales, it may have gone too far.

STEVE DOWNES

Channel 4 is no stranger to controversy. But by riding roughshod over royalty and apparently besmirching the memory of the enduringly popular Diana, Princess of Wales, it may have gone too far. STEVE DOWNES reports.

There are a few things that no self-respecting Brit would dare to do in public.

Disrespecting Diana Princess of Wales is one of them.

The foolhardy may try it, but they would risk the righteous wrath of a nation that remains deeply devoted to the ill-starred princess who died almost 10 years ago.

Channel 4's decision to commission a documentary about Diana's death crash in Paris - including obscured footage of her being treated by a French doctor in the wreckage of her car - was bad enough for her extensive army of admirers.

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The more recent decision to effectively thumb its nose at her children, princes William and Harry, by ignoring their request for tomorrow's documentary to be pulled from the schedules is guaranteed to unleash a furious storm of protest.

On one level, there is indignation simply because delving into the dark areas of the life of Diana is seen as unfair play.

But there is another, more immediately human aspect.

Diana left two sons behind when she died. They love their mother devotedly, as most sons do.

They just happen to be heirs to the throne. In an ideal world, that fact should be ignored when weighing up whether to broadcast the documentary.

But we don't live in an ideal world.

The fact is, Diana, Princess of Wales continues to be one of the most fascinating characters in Britain. She was married to - and divorced from - the future King, gave birth to another future King, and attracted more newspaper column inches than perhaps anyone before or after her.

The programme will be of great interest to the public. Channel 4 argues that screening the documentary is also in the “public interest”. There is a subtle difference, but the controversial broadcaster is hardly likely to worry about that.

For Channel 4 is not known for backing down in the face of viewers' sensitivity or sensibility.

This is, after all, the station that gave birth to one of the media's ugliest offspring, Big Brother.

After growing through its early years with brawls, cheating and a Fathers 4 Justice protest, one of its progeny, Celebrity Big Brother, gave us the ultimate TV controversy.

Last week Channel 4 was forced to publicly apologise after Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty was the victim of racist bullying on the show.

The comments, made by a cackling coven of Z-list “celebrities”, generated more than 40,000 complaints earlier this year.

Another Channel 4 reality programme, Shipwrecked, also came under fire earlier this year after alleged racist comments made by one of the contestants were broadcast.

Because of the Celebrity Big Brother row, a season of three controversial programmes on masturbation was shelved.

Just last week Lord Puttnam, the deputy chairman of Channel 4, said he was “not proud” of the money-spinning Big Brother shows.

The channel has also been criticised by its founding chief executive Sir Jeremy Isaacs for its “obsession with adolescent transgression and sex”, which has seen it screen shows such as Penis Week and Designer Vaginas.

When Michael Grade led the channel in the 1980s and 1990s he was branded "pornographer in chief' for bringing shows such as The Word and Eurotrash to the small screen.

But it is not just programmes on sex which have put the channel at the centre of debate.

Recently, animal rights activists dumped a pile of horse manure outside Claridges in protest at an episode of TV chef Gordon Ramsay's The F Word which featured a horse meat barbecue.

And Channel 4's drama in which President Bush is assassinated by a sniper also courted controversy.

The 90-minute drama Death of a President, shot in the style of a documentary, used the fictional murder to explore the effects of the War on Terror on the US, but drew criticism from both sides of the Atlantic.

It was one of many programmes shown on Channel 4 and its digital channels which test the boundaries of what is considered to be acceptable TV.

In April, Channel 4 announced it was postponing a controversial drama about British soldiers in Iraq.

Senior military figures had expressed concern about the timing of the drama, which was set to be broadcast as negotiations were taking place to release 15 service personnel captured by the Iranians.

The Mark of Cain was eventually broadcast after the captives were safely returned home.

But its depiction of British troops abusing Iraqi detainees drew condemnation from some quarters.

Others controversial episodes in the history of Channel 4 include an human autopsy, stunts by illusionist Derren Brown playing Russian roulette live on TV and persuading participants to take part in a security van “robbery”, and Death Wish Live on E4 in which escapologist James Goodwin failed to escape a hanging stunt and had to be cut down.

Channel 4 has also challenged tradition for more than a decade by screening an alternative Christmas message at the same time as the Queen's Speech, with speakers ranging from Rory Bremner as Diana, Princess of Wales, Ali G and The Simpsons to the parents of Stephen Lawrence and a veiled Muslim woman.

And like its fellow terrestrial channels, Channel 4 found itself caught up in the phone-in scandal when callers to Richard and Judy's You Say, We Pay quiz were encouraged to ring in although contestants had already been selected in the first few minutes of the programme.

The list of charges to be taken into account is longer than your arm, and Channel 4 continues to stroll on with no sign of remorse.

But will tackling “England's Rose” be the thorniest problem yet for the enfant terrible of British TV?

t Is Channel 4 right to screen its controversial documentary about Diana's death crash? See the EDP voteline to make your feelings known.