By now, you know the story of how Danish TV—that is, The Killing and Borgen—conquered the world. But, for Danes, this is not the whole story.
Borgen, which aims to look deeply into the workings of politics and media, tiptoes around the most widely discussed issues in Danish politics of the last decade: the controversy around contentious cartoons, threats, assassination attempts, Islamist conspiracies and free speech. No other recent event has brought Denmark into global headlines like the publication, in 2005, of 12 cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in the newspaper Jyllands-Posten. The images led to riots across the Islamic world and to a foiled terrorist plot to attack the newspaper offices.
The problem with The Killing, and in particular, Borgen, is that they portray Danish society as it was years ago: innocent and without the sneaking fear among writers and artists that addressing certain issues might put their lives in danger.
One Danish series, however, has taken a different approach. The director and comedian Omar Marzouk—himself a Dane who is the son of Egyptian immigrants—created, in 2010, a TV programme about an amateurish and over-ambitious terrorist group. His aim—rather like Chris Morris’s 2010 film Four Lions—was to ridicule terrorism rather than keeping an awestruck silence around it. Titled The Cell, the 12-episode series was developed by the independent Amsterdam-based SBS Broadcasting and received considerable funding from the state-run Danish Film Institute. When it was finally made, however, SBS did not broadcast The Cell. The organisation was unable to present a convincing explanation for its decision. SBS spokesman Jesper Jürgensen said, “We judge the subject might disturb some of our advertisers,” but after criticisms he had to admit no advertisers had expressed such concerns. When SBS hinted that other Danish networks might be interested, those at the top of other channels fell over each other to explain why their station would not broadcast such a thing. So Omar Marzouk’s terrorist comedy was simply never shown and has not reached an audience to this day.
Many commentators on the centre-left in Denmark argue that free speech is not under threat. They do not worry about the repercussions of assassination attempts like that on the provocateur and Islam critic Lars Hedegaard at the doorstep of his Copenhagen home last month or on the life of Kurt Westergaard, the cartoonist behind one of the Muhammad cartoons.
Yet the refusal of a range of TV stations to broadcast another potentially successful Danish TV series—even before they had seen it—seems to show that free speech is not completely safe. Rather, one suspects that a climate of fear affects the world of television, print journalism and politics, where the spectre of Islamist attacks either consciously or unconsciously leads journalists to avoid or play down uncomfortable topics and give little airtime to dissenting voices.
Marzouk, however, has not given up. Recently, he seems to have found a small loophole in his SBS contract—the video-on-demand rights have never been settled—and he is now entering into negotiations with HBO’s Nordic branch. So The Cell may yet throw a light on why Sarah Lund or Birgitte Nyborg never encounter religious fanatics, threats or any of the phenomena that have been at the centre of Danish political life over the past decade.