Ofcom: Mary Whitehouse in liberal attire

Everyone cheered the regulator for its ruling on Celebrity Big Brother. But what gives a bunch of unelected suits the right to lecture broadcasters?

Neil Davenport

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Five months on from the airing of the British reality TV show, Celebrity Big Brother, there is still a great deal of handwringing and finger-pointing over the crass remarks made by reality TV has-been Jade Goody and other contestants to the Indian actress, Shilpa Shetty. Goody and two other celebs have been accused by some of bullying Shetty in a ‘racial manner’.

Last week, the British media regulator, Ofcom, rode into the CBB debacle on its high horse, dispensing censorious writs against Channel 4. Elsewhere, London’s Metropolitan Police Force (Celebrity Division) announced that it is considering questioning CBB contestants again after ‘new evidence’ regarding their behaviour emerged. Ironically, the individual at the centre of the storm – Shetty – has dismissed the catty behaviour of Goody, Jo O’Meara and Danielle Lloyd as ignorant but not racist, and hardly worth dwelling on. So why can’t Ofcom, the police, Labour MPs and commentators leave this tired and over-egged ‘controversy’ alone?

According to Ofcom’s judgement on the affair, Channel 4 made ‘serious editorial misjudgements’ in its handling of various incidents in the CBB house, such as by broadcasting Goody’s reference to Shetty as ‘Shilpa Poppadom’ (1). Ofcom complains that the CBB producers ‘failed to contextualise or justify the inclusion [of this comment]’. Perhaps Channel 4 should have aired a warning along the lines of: ‘This programme contains the opinions of foul-mouthed celebrity chavs which some viewers may find disturbing.’

But then, bizarrely, Channel 4 has also been criticised for covering up other ‘incidents of racism’ in the CBB house. Thus, says Ofcom, the channel could be accused of ‘condoning the behaviour of some of the housemates because interventions were felt to be too late’ (2). So Channel 4 is slammed both for failing to censor allegedly racist material and also for censoring allegedly racist material.

For many media pundits, this all proves that the executives at Channel 4 are not fit to run a public broadcasting channel (a cursory glance at Channel 4’s dismal, prurient and mocking output would surely have confirmed that fact, without the benefit of an Ofcom report). Yet in their rush to cheer Ofcom for rapping Channel 4’s knuckles, and for raising a question mark over garish reality TV programmes that give airtime to wannabes and airhead celebrities, commentators have failed to ask the most pressing question: what right do the unelected stuffed shirts at Ofcom have to decide what Channel 4 should or should not show the public?

Commentators and politicians have given their nodding approval to Ofcom’s insidious brand of ‘liberal censorship’. Censure by Ofcom is justified on the grounds that it is protecting the viewing public (which includes children, don’t forget!) from material that is ‘offensive’, ‘inappropriate’ and ‘unacceptable’. Why don’t we be done with it and employ Ofcom representatives in actual TV studios and behind the cameras, so that they can make sure that everyone in TV-land behaves according to its strict guidelines? I loathe Big Brother and the public school nihilists who produce it as much as the next journalist. But having Ofcom dictate the terms of British broadcasting is a far worse prospect, and a disaster for TV on a par with bringing back soap-in-the-sun Eldorado.

Channel 4 has been ordered to broadcast a summary of Ofcom’s findings ahead of three of its programmes: the first episode of the new Big Brother series, which starts on 30 May, as well as before the first re-versioned showing of BB the following morning and before the first eviction show. Even Dermot O’Leary’s meejah-bloke prattle would sound positively enticing in comparison with a long boring mea culpa about where Channel 4 allegedly sinned against Ofcom’s commandments. What next? Will Ofcom reprimand the producers of Big Brother for not apologising for Britain’s role in the transatlantic slave trade? Much has been made of the fact that, after a great deal of political and media campaigning by community groups and certain MPs, 45,000 people complained about the bullying incidents on CBB. What about the other five million or so people who watched the show and didn’t complain? Do they not count? Behind the claims that Ofcom is providing a useful service to the public, in fact this is about an unelected minority dictating to the rest of us about what we can watch; Ofcom is Mary Whitehouse dressed in liberal attire.

As I have argued previously on spiked, the Goody/Shetty row, and the response to it, revealed much about the role that race and ‘anti-racism’ play in British society today. At a time when the authorities find it increasingly difficult to forge any meaningful consensus on what British society is for, being against racism or ‘intolerant behaviour’ has stepped in to fill the vacuum in moral values. The more atomised and fragmented individuals appear to be, and the more isolated established institutions feel from wider society, the more that ‘anti-racism’ is rolled out in an attempt to create a new sense of Britishness and British values.

Goody’s crass behaviour was described by everyone from Trevor Phillips of the Commission for Racial Equality to the Sun as an ‘outrage’, an embarrassment to the nation’s moral standing – yet in truth, such outbursts are actually quite useful for the political and media elite in the sense that they can be used to reinforce the new moral framework. This is why institutions such as Ofcom, the Met and the political establishment can’t let the CBB debacle go (even after its main ‘victim’, Shetty, has got over it): they need such examples of intolerant behaviour in order to force everybody else into line.

The implication behind today’s official ‘anti-racism’ is that the mass of British people are only a cigarette paper away from starting pogroms against ethnic minorities. This is what Ofcom means when it refers to the ‘context’ of Goody and Co’s jibes against Shetty. It is implying that without ‘context’ – that is, paternalistic guidance about acceptable language and behaviour, issued by bodies that know better than the rest of us – the masses will run around calling Indian people ‘poppadom’, or worse. Although Ofcom is ostensibly slapping Channel 4’s wrists, its actual intended target is CBB viewers, who apparently cannot be trusted to watch scenes of negative behaviour. To counter the alleged damage done to the public by these scenes, Ofcom now insists that Channel 4 apologises not just once, but three times, to make sure that we viewers get the ‘correct’ message loud and clear.

Another message has been transmitted by the obsession with CBB: namely, that Indians living in Britain are victims, too. In recent years, we have been constantly told that Muslims and black youth face insurmountable obstacles in British society, and thus they need special treatment to help them to deal with their alienation. By contrast, first- and second-generation Indians have largely been left out of this victimising process (which is often a self-fulfilling one). That is one reason why Indian youth are far less preoccupied with ethnic identity than their Muslim or black peers – it is also why, crucially, they tend to do considerably better at school, too. Most Indians in Britain do not consider their ethnic background and skin colour as a barrier to advancement or, judging by some of my Indian students’ chatter about gigs and clubs in Camden, as a block against taking part in mainstream British society.

Thus, many British Indians wrote off the CBB debacle. They seemed to view it as a hugely overblown controversy, and one which was massively unrepresentative of their own experience of living in twenty-first-century Britain, and especially London. Could the continual parading of Shetty over the past five months, and her alleged victimisation at the hands of three representatives of what one journalist called ‘thick white Britain’, be part of an attempt to encourage young Indians to see themselves also as a ‘race apart’, as a victim class? Certainly, Labour MP Keith Vaz, who has stepped in to the debate to demand an apology from Channel 4, seems keen to promote the idea that Indians are the latest victims of modern Britain, rather than one of its hidden success stories. After all, the way to win public recognition these days is by playing the victim card rather than the success card.

Five months on from the CBB debacle, we don’t need any more on-air apologies or handwringing. Rather, we could do with saying ‘F off’ to Ofcom and all the other peddlers of today’s censorious and divisive PC outlook.

Neil Davenport is a writer and researcher based in London.

Previously on spiked

Sandy Starr looked into the twilight world of Ofcom. Brendan O’Neill said advertising is a free speech issue. At the height of the Celebrity Big Brother row, Neil Davenport believed it was time to evict official anti-racism and Bombay-based Sadhavi Sharma was shocked by the worshipping of Shilpa Shetty in Britain. Or read more at spiked issue Free speech.

(1) Guardian, 25 May 2007

(2) Guardian, 25 May 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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