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Big Bigot – Racism proves ratings winner
(Celebrity Big Brother, Channel 4)

Andrew Johnson

1 February 2007

This year’s Celebrity Big Brother has earned the accolade of being the most complained-about TV programme in British broadcasting history, with 45,000 complaints to the regulator Ofcom and a further 3000 directly to Channel 4. It has earned the interest of politicians and police, become part of an international diplomatic incident, dominated the press for several weeks and even led to questions being put about Channel 4’s future as a broadcaster. Everyone knows by now what happened in the house –more interesting questions would be, why did it happen and what does it mean?

In recent years, Big Brother has become bogged down with gimmicks aimed at jazzing up a rather tired brand. In fact, it has often seemed as if the producers are treating the viewing public with open contempt. Last year’s Celebrity BB was notable for non-celebrity ringer Chantelle, who went on to win the show. The following normal BB attracted controversy for featuring people with obvious mental health problems, as well as a major voting scandal. Having built up the character of Nikki as a bona fide star, and spun the Pete-Nikki romance angle for all it was worth, C4 were presented with some difficulty when she was voted out. Berlusconi-style, the channel decided this meant the public wanted to see more of Nikki and put her back in, a decision that led to them having to refund viewers’ votes.

This year, the gimmick was to introduce Jade Goody, who came fourth in Big Brother 3 way back in 2002. Although it was fairly obvious to anyone who watched that series that Jade had quite a nasty bullying streak to her personality, viewers took her to heart for her seeming innocence, her malapropisms and her willingness to laugh at herself. Even though she didn’t win that year, she has been by far the most successful contestant in the show’s history, building an estimated £8m fortune by being, in essence, Britain’s village idiot. However, the Jade brought into the house in 2007 was not the Jade of five years earlier – this was a rich and famous Jade, made over, surgically enhanced, with a monstrous ego, determined to be alpha female of the house. Just to underline this, the producers hit on the idea of sending in Jade’s motormouth mother and near-catatonic boyfriend as fellow “celebrities”. This savage exposure of Jade’s mother, defenceless in this environment, must have appealed to the trendies at Channel 4 as harmless fun, having a bit of a laugh at the plebs.

The other notable entrant was of course the eventual winner, Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty. While almost unknown to the white British public – which was probably a significant factor in the bullying row – having Shilpa in the house was a huge deal for the Asian community, with many Asians who would never normally watch Big Brother tuning in just because Shilpa was on. This pitch ended up backfiring badly as Asian viewers took serious umbrage at how Shilpa was treated.

The details of bullying by the Jade family and her two associates – faded pop singer Jo and gormless glamour model Danielle – are well known. The fascinating thing is the reaction on the outside. After all, although Big Brother contestants are made to sign contracts banning bullying, there have been bullying incidents in every series so far, with Pete Burns’ behaviour on last year’s celebrity show being perhaps the worst example. Equally, this has often had racial undertones – the Saskia-Makosi spat a couple of years ago was far more blatantly racist, yet was barely commented on. This has to be related to the personalities involved.

The storm took a while to build. Listeners to the BBC Asian Network, an excellent barometer of opinion in the Asian community, could have sensed the anger mounting. Anita Rani’s morning phone-in had been dominated by little else for a full week before the mainstream media picked up the story. While reaction in India was dictated by nationalism – the sense was that Shilpa was representing her country abroad – British Asians took the matter much more personally. Much of the white population feels that racism is a matter of using certain words, but Asians are much more alert to subtler forms of racist behaviour. In fact, Channel 4’s assertions that they couldn’t definitely detect intentional racism began to look like wilful blindness. Interviewing C4 chief executive Andy Duncan, Channel 4 News’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy felt compelled to point out that every ethnic minority person in Britain will have heard the phrase “fuck off home”, and it can only be taken one way.

Another important factor is that, unlike, say, Narinder in Big Brother 2 – a loud and stroppy British Asian woman with a strong northern accent – the genteel Shilpa, with her typically upper-caste Indian mannerisms, was a victim the middle classes could get behind. They could feel smugly anti-racist and at the same time superior to the chavs. But there is a strong class element to the bullying as well. What appalled this viewer about the Jade-Jo-Danielle trio was not so much their burping, farting and cursing, but their utter ignorance of and lack of curiosity about someone from a different culture. What could be seen there was the collapse of education for a generation of British youth. And what may have been class-based resentments – Shilpa’s very cultivated self-confidence rubbing them up the wrong way just as much as her different attitude to booze and sex – these resentments could only be articulated in terms of jibes about Shilpa’s most obvious feature, her ethnicity.

Initially, the approach of C4 and Endemol was to let the row take its course and brazen it out, fully aware that the blanket press coverage was boosting ratings. That was until the media storm started to get a little too intense and C4 faced the prospect of being hit in the pocket. Long-time Big Brother sponsor Carphone Warehouse suspended its £3m sponsorship deal, while advertisers began to get jittery. The involvement of politicians put the wind up C4 even more, as the channel is relying on a generous state subsidy to help it through the digital switchover. Something clearly had to be done.

But what? Although C4 is nominally a public service broadcaster, it relies heavily on advertising and commercial sponsorship, and Big Brother is one of its biggest money-spinners, not only attracting advertising but also bringing in big money through lucrative phone votes. And if the Big Brother brand is important to C4, the Jade brand is nearly as important to sustaining Big Brother. For the legions of wannabes currently queuing up to be in this summer’s Big Brother, Jade is an iconic figure, living proof that, even if you lack any discernible talent, reality TV can make you rich and famous. Apart from her own small army of minions, it was in C4/Endemol’s interest for Jade to be protected.

So, in moral terms, there were two things the producers could have done. Either they could have stepped in at an early stage and put their foot down, or they could have allowed events to run their course and let Jade face the music. Instead they took the coward’s way out: Jade was given warnings about her behaviour, prodded into a televised reconciliation with Shilpa, and given a soft eviction with no crowd or press conference. Immediately afterwards, the publicists went into overdrive and a suitably contrite Jade did the media rounds, giving tearful interviews and trying to shift the blame onto the hapless Danielle. Such is the media investment in Jade that there is little doubt she’ll bounce back before long.

The response to Big Brother reeks of hypocrisy. The British middle classes blame the chavs and congratulate themselves on their tolerance.  In fact the capitalist class and market economy, represented by channel four and the Endemol corporation, carefully construct the lunatic peep show with no mercy for any of the contestants.  Open racial attacks are a source of congratulation and a sharp increase in profits.  It is only when the oppressed – in this case the British Asian community – organise and protest that the house of cards falls down. 


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