Get this filth off our screens

Channel 4's transformation of the 'nigger incident' on Big Brother into a moral parable for the viewing public is the really offensive thing.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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What could be more offensive than a 19-year-old middle-class girl from Bristol (hell, she even has blonde hair and blue eyes) calling a black fellow contestant on this year’s British Big Brother a ‘nigger’?

Well, how about Channel 4’s cynical transformation of this silly incident – which everyone admits was a slip of the tongue – into a national spectacle to re-educate (read hector) the public? C4 producers dragged said 19-year-old girl from her bed at 3.30am (one observer called it a ‘3am raid’), stuck her in the modern equivalent of the stocks – the Big Brother diary room – and proceeded to lecture her, and by extension the viewing public, about what constitutes appropriate language and good behaviour. Then it ejected the girl from the house, even though she wasn’t wearing any knickers, and placed her in the hands of a psychologist ‘in case she did anything stupid’ (1).

Yep, I’d say that’s way more offensive.

Another series of Big Brother, another racism row. Hot on the heels of the controversy over the bullying of Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty on Celebrity Big Brother in January, Channel 4 is now faced with ‘the problem of Emily Parr’. On Wednesday, Emily, a self-described Peaches Geldof lookalike with a plummy accent and a penchant for amateur dramatics, was mucking around in the Big Brother house with Charley Uchea, a black gobby 21-year-old from south London who actually says things like ‘am I bovvered?’ (the Sun’s TV critic Ally Ross calls her a ‘Catherine Tate sketch come horribly to life’) (2). Charley rubbed her slightly protruding belly and jokingly said: ‘I hope I’m not pregnant.’ To which Emily responded: ‘You’re pushing it out, you nigger.’ (3) She immediately apologised, claiming she had used the word in a ‘friendly’ hip-hop styleee (white middle-class kids like to dress street and speak gangsta every now and then), and Charley accepted it was not racially motivated. Or as Charley said to a fellow housemate, in her imitable motormouth style: ‘It wasn’t racist so don’t get the wrong end of the fucking stick yeah.’

In a normal world, that would have been the end of it. ‘Posh White Chick Says Something Silly, New Black Friend Brushes It Aside’ is hardly headline news. But ours is not a normal world. So this non-run-in between two five-day-old sort-of celebrities on a reality TV show has been made into one of the biggest stories of the week, with wild claims that it shows racism is a rampant force in modern Britain and that the censors, Channel 4 and various quangos have a duty to crush it and any residual inappropriate thoughts that might lurk in the public’s mind. The transformation of some throwaway banter in a house of wannabes into a moral parable for the nation reveals a lot about the screwed-up outlook of those who fancy themselves as the guardians of public morals today.


Emily Parr in the diary room

The ‘Emily incident’ shows how insidious censorship has become in contemporary Britain. It captures in particular the chilling effect that the Office of Communications, Britain’s media regulator, can have on TV and radio output. Some people claim that Ofcom, an unelected bunch of suits whom the vast majority of us could not pick out in a line-up, is not a censorship outfit. After all, it only lays down guidelines for broadcasters, and only chastises those who break the guidelines after they have done so – that is, after the allegedly offending material has snuck into the ether and been watched and talked about and argued over. Yet this is to overlook the impact that Ofcom’s rulings can have on future content, and on broadcasters themselves, who are encouraged by every telling-off they get to become more and more obedient and super-cautious lest they have their collars felt by the content cops ever again. Channel 4 reprimanded Emily and removed her from the house – and patronised the rest of us with endless reminders about ‘appropriate language’ – in direct response to Ofcom’s severe judgement last month that the channel had made ‘serious editorial misjudgements’ during the Shilpa Shetty race row on Celebrity Big Brother (4).

In its handling of the ‘Emily incident’, Channel 4 is appeasing what it clearly considers to be its masters at Ofcom. And that is a truly unedifying sight. In May, Ofcom’s ruling on CBB decreed that Channel 4 had not acted quickly enough to deal with the bullying of Shilpa Shetty by Jade Goody and others, and had ‘failed to contextualise or justify the inclusion [of certain comments in the show]’ (5). (They particularly had in mind Jade’s phrase ‘Shilpa Poppadom’, which now ranks with Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech in the infamy stakes.) Keen to show that it is a good little broadcaster, C4 leapt with undisguised relish on Emily’s use of the n-word as an opportunity to show Ofcom that it is very sorry for having sinned against it and will never do so again.

So this time it acted very speedily (not even waiting until the following day before expelling Emily), and it ‘contextualised’ everything: there were three warnings that ‘this programme contains racially offensive language’ (presumably for the benefit of those who mistakenly think nigger is an acceptable, everyday word to describe black people) and a 10-minute therapy session between Emily and Big Brother in which a solemn-sounding producer asked her: ‘Emily, do you realise how offensive that word is?’ (6)

The ‘Emily incident’ shows how Ofcom shapes, censures and, yes, censors broadcasting in Britain, how this unelected, unaccountable body defines what is appropriate content and what is not. Of course, few would defend the ‘right’ of some spoilt drama-school brat from the West Country to say nigger. But we should challenge the right of Ofcom to draw the boundaries of decency and taste on TV. Some of those cheering Channel 4 for making an example of Emily now call on it to take a ‘tough stance’ on sexist language, too (7). And let’s not forget that during the CBB debacle, the police (yes, even they got involved) also investigated singer Jermaine Jackson’s use of the phrase ‘white trash’. Can’t people on TV say anything without a heavy dose of externally imposed contextualisation? Ofcom’s meddling – and broadcasters’ complicity in it – means TV vocabulary is becoming ever narrower, while the audience is treated as wide-eyed kids who must have everything explained to them by some suit who knows better. Not so much ‘watch with mother’ as ‘watch with Ofcom’. We now have the surreal situation where even a reality TV show – supposedly a lab for just letting life happen – is effectively scripted by media regulators.

The Emily/Charley controversy suggests we’re entering a new era of what we might call ‘showy censorship’. Where the censors of the past – think Mary Whitehouse and the rest of the blue-rinse, blue-pen brigade – demanded that content simply be removed from the airwaves, today’s censoriousness is about allowing the public to view apparently shocking material but only as a way of educating them and changing their behaviour. So having jumped through the hoops laid out by Ofcom, C4 then took what some are calling a ‘brave’ decision to go ahead and show Emily saying nigger to Charley. The aim, said one producer, was to give viewers ‘the opportunity to see the conversation in context’, and to understand that we should never ‘tolerate racist behaviour’ (8). This follows Big Brother supremo Peter Bazalgette’s claims that Celebrity Big Brother did more ‘than anything for a decade to force us to examine our racial prejudices’ (9).

This really is a case of Big Brother Is Watching You: that’s ‘you’ the public, apparently so ignorant and volatile that you must only hear the word nigger in an educational context and you must have regular reminders about why racist behaviour is unacceptable. Channel 4’s airing of the n-word exchange last night allowed the channel to show some titillating TV (roll up, roll up, posh bird says nigger to a black Londoner!) and simultaneously to implore viewers to ‘not try this at home’. In this sense we can say there was a censorious impulse behind C4’s decision to show the ‘Emily incident’, since one of the central aims was to correct the public’s way of thinking and remind us never to use the n-word. It was ‘show and tell’ television: show the silly incident, and tell off the public.

Where the old Mary Whitehouse lot wanted stuff simply to be scribbled out – patronisingly believing that it might corrupt the public – today’s self-appointed moral guardians allow us to look at bad things as a way of caring for and shaping our fragile sensibilities. If anything that makes the new brigade worse: they’re even more pro-active, patronising and prescriptive than those old cobwebbed conservatives in Middle England who once balked at the sound and sight of swear words, violence and cocks on the box. And they have real power, where Whitehouse never did.

Finally, the ‘Emily incident’ shows how accusations of racism have become a tool wielded by the political and media elite against the rest of us. Even though Emily didn’t say the word nigger with racist intent, and Charley accepted it was not racist, this has been transformed into A Racist Incident by various observers (who know better, obviously). A spokesman for the Commission for Racial Equality congratulated Channel 4 for ‘showing everyone that racism must never be tolerated in any way, shape or form’. He went on to say: ‘Two series of Big Brother, two racist incidents – this just shows how prevalent racism really is in Britain today.’ (10) What?! Jade’s phrase ‘Shilpa Poppadom’ and Emily’s use of street slang show that Britain is overrun by racism?

The CRE is cynically blowing minor semi-celeb happenings into big racial issues in order to justify its own bloated role in pontificating about race relations. Contrary to the prejudices held by some about fevered prejudices gripping the nation, there is less public racism in Britain than at any time during the past 30 years – and this fact forces the likes of the CRE to go a’racism-hunting, to seek out ‘reality racism’ over real racism, in an attempt to demonstrate that it still has a useful role in public life. That it is reduced to cheering the expulsion of a silly girl from a TV house might suggest otherwise. The self-serving tolerance industry has also leapt upon the n-word controversy to hammer home its poisonous message that white communities are a potentially volatile mass who must be re-educated, and black communities are victims-in-waiting who need the CRE and others to speak for them. This flies in the face of reality, of course: Emily is not a racist, and Charley is no victim. They sorted out their misunderstanding amongst themselves, until self-serving observers poked their noses in and detonated the incident out of all proportion.

Does Emily look bad as a result of her antics on BB? Maybe. But not nearly as bad as the censors, the broadcasters and the quango spokespeople who used her antics to boost their own moral authority. Channel 4 comes out of this the worst. Emily may have stupidly said nigger. But C4, in a craven attempt to appease Britain’s censors and scrape back some of the respect it lost over Celebrity Big Brother, dragged a 19-year-old girl from her bed at 3.30am, and while she was still groggy and confused condemned her for using an ‘unacceptable word’; as she pleaded for understanding and insisted that she was not racist it asked her to leave the house in only a night-gown, and holed her up in a hotel where she is reportedly still in ‘floods of tears’ and ‘near hysterics’ while being comforted by those parts of her family who have not disowned her (11). A young woman has been turned into an instrument of Channel 4’s moral rejuvenation, and she is likely to pay a high price for it. ‘Cynical’ doesn’t even begin to cover it. We need a brand new word to describe what Channel 4 did last night.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

Previously on spiked

Graham Barnfield asked: Big Brother – why bother?. Brendan O’Neill said Celebrity Big Brother was a Zzzz-list scandal. Neil Davenport said it’s time to evict official anti-racism and that the Ofcom regulators’ ruling on Celebrity Big Brother 2007 showed that they are just like Mary Whitehouse, but in liberal attire. Or read more at spiked issue Arts and entertainment.

(1) Big Bruv’s Big Mouth, Sun, 8 June 2007

(2) Ally Ross on TV, Sun, 8 June 2007

(3) Big Brother bans contestant for using racist term, Independent, 8 June 2007

(4) See Ofcom: Mary Whitehouse in liberal attire, by Neil Davenport

(5) See Ofcom: Mary Whitehouse in liberal attire, by Neil Davenport

(6) Big Brother, Channel 4, 7 June 2007

(7) Big Brother’s Big Mouth, Channel 4, 7 June 2007

(8) Channel 4 praised for Big Brother action, Guardian, 7 June 2007

(9) Why we’re right about Celeb BB, Observer, 25 February 2007

(10) Channel 4 praised for Big Brother action, Guardian, 7 June 2007

(11) Big Brother Emily disowned, Mirror, 8 June 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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