Ofcom: interfering busybodies or upholding standards?

by Stephen Tall on May 24, 2007

Even before Big Brother 8 starts, its shallow spin-off Celebrity Big Brother is again hitting the headlines, following media regulator Ofcom’s decision to order Channel 4 to apologise three times for showing footage of Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty being taunted by fellow contestants Jade Goody, Jack Tweedy and Jo O’Meara.

My first reaction was one of concern – why should a regulator force a channel to apologise for screening individuals showing themselves in their true (and unattractive) colours? Jade telling Shilpa to “Fuck off home” was racist and deeply unpleasant – but that Jade felt this was an acceptable insult to hurl provided an insight into her character and standards, which is surely the point of a reality show like Big Brother.

The public reaction – over-hyped by the media, who typically glorified in lambasting C4 while gleefully repeating the offensive remarks – demonstrated far better than any Ofcom ruling the contempt in which views such as Jade’s are widely regarded by substantial numbers of the liberal, tolerant viewing public.

However, I then read Ofcom’s ruling – and it shows that what they took umbrage with C4 for was not the channel’s decision to show some D-listers proving their tawdry ignorance, but that the shows producers had not seen all the relevant footage when they made the decision to broadcast Jade & co’s remarks.

Specifically, this included untransmitted footage of the racist trio’s doubtless side-splitting attempts to work the word ‘Paki’ into a limerick. In Ofcom’s judgement, C4 needed to be aware of this wider context before broadcasting incidents such as Jade’s “Shilpa poppadom” comment, so that it could be placed in its full context. As Ofcom notes:

The audience’s understanding of the events in the House and, in particular, the alleged racist bullying, was changing as the series developed and therefore comments which may in other circumstances have been interpreted as “borderline” in terms of offence became much more offensive given what was happening in the House, as well as beyond the House, in the outside world.

Seen in this light, Ofcom’s ruling seems to me entirely sensible, even commendable. As viewers, we rely on C4 editing shows – whether entertainment reality like Big Brother, or serious documentaries like Dispatches – in a responsible, fair and balanced way. This requires producers and editors to be in possession of the full facts, so that the highlights package can be properly filtered and contextualised.

This clearly didn’t happen in the case of the latest Celebrity Big Brother, and there was the potential for viewers to be misled – to view Jade’s racist remarks as isolated incidents erupting in the heat of the moment, rather than as exempla of the casual, careless but systematic bullying they in fact were.