Search Politics for MPs and issues
Find an MP
Or browse the map
How to use Aristotle
Letter: The fight against graft continues
Racism, ratings and reality TV: now Big Brother creates a diplomatic incident
· Complaints over Channel 4 show hit record 22,000
· Police to investigate abuse of Bollywood film star
Owen Gibson, Vikram Dodd and Randeep Ramesh in Delhi
Thursday January 18, 2007
Protesters in Patna, India, shout slogans against the producers of Celebrity Big Brother. Photograph: Associated Press
Three days ago it was merely the below par fifth season of a faltering reality TV franchise. But as the storm over the alleged racism of its participants intensified, Celebrity Big Brother yesterday sparked demonstrations on Indian streets, consternation in Downing Street, condemnation from the chancellor on a state visit to Bangalore and a police investigation.
The Channel 4 show has always courted controversy but has never before been on the verge of sparking an international incident. Yet as the number of complaints from outraged viewers topped 22,000, the Indian government spoke out against the programme and Hertfordshire police confirmed it would investigate allegations that Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty had been subjected to racist abuse by three white fellow housemates.
Rocos said: "I don't think there's anything racist in it." But Shetty replied: "It is, I'm telling you."
Later, glamour model Danielle Lloyd, talking to Goody, said that the Bollywood star should "fuck off home".
India's information and broadcasting minister Priyaranjan Dasmunsi appealed to Shetty to appear before the Indian high commission in London when she came out of the house. "If there has been some racism shown against her in the show, it is not only an attack on women but also on the skin and the country," he said.
Media regulator Ofcom said last night it had received 19,300 complaints, more than double its previous record, while a further 3,000 were made to Channel 4 directly. A separate online petition launched by the newspaper Eastern Eye had last night attracted 20,000 signatures.
Hertfordshire police said it would formally investigate 30 complaints. A spokesman said: "Hertfordshire constabulary is investigating allegations of racist behaviour in the Big Brother house, and will be conducting an inquiry, including a review of tapes."
Channel 4 and Endemol executives met yesterday to discuss the row, but privately may be rubbing their hands. Tuesday night's show was watched by 4.5 million people, 1 million more than Monday's.
The furore was sparked by a series of incidents centred on a group of contestants led by Goody, who earned millions after finding fame on the non-celebrity version of the show, and including her boyfriend Jack Tweed, Lloyd and former S Club 7 singer Jo O'Meara. At one point Goody, after a row with Shetty, had said: "You need elocution lessons. You need a day in the slums. Go to those people who look up to you and be real. You fucking fake."
Ratings, and voting revenues, are likely to soar further after Goody and Shetty were last night pitted against one another when they received the most nominations to be evicted from the house on Friday.
Last night, Channel 4 released a statement insisting that there had been no overt racism, and claiming that the clashes were based on class and cultural differences.
But in India, the row has managed the rare feat of uniting all political parties. Communists, Hindu nationalists and the ruling Congress party have all demanded action be taken to preserve Shetty's dignity. "[Big Brother] is holding a mirror to British society. It is no aberration. We should thank Channel 4 for revealing the hidden biases of Britain," Mahesh Bhatt, a Bollywood director, told the Guardian.
Dozens of Shetty's fans took to the streets in Patna, eastern India, to protest against what they said was her humiliation, burning straw effigies of the show's producers. In Bangalore, Gordon Brown faced journalists questioning him on the merits of a reality show he claimed not to have seen. "I understand that in the UK there have already been 10,000 complaints from viewers about remarks which people see rightly as offensive," he said. "I want Britain to be seen as a country of fairness and tolerance. Anything that detracts from that I condemn."
Later Tony Blair's spokesman added: "What clearly is to be regretted and countered is any perception abroad that in any way we tolerate racism in this country."
In one exchange, Goody was heard saying of Shetty: "She makes me feel sick. She makes my skin crawl", while her now evicted mother Jackiey continually referred to her as "the Indian". Later Lloyd claimed that the Bollywood star "wants to be white" and called her a "dog".
After Shetty cooked a roast chicken dinner, Lloyd had said: "They eat with their hands in India, don't they. Or is that China?" She added: "You don't know where those hands have been."
The complaints were further fuelled when Tweed was reported as calling Shetty a "Paki". Channel 4 insists that in fact the word he used, which was bleeped out, was "cunt".
FAQ: The law
Are the alleged remarks covered by any law?
Chief superintendent Ali Dizaei, adviser to the Black Police Association, said section 22 of the Public Order Act 1986 could apply as it talks about broadcasting "involving threatening, abusive or insulting visual images or sounds". An offence would be committed if Channel 4 intended "to stir up racial hatred" or if "racial hatred is likely to be stirred up".
Could Channel 4 or staff on the programme face criminal investigation?
Yes. Section 22 says those who could be guilty of an offence would be "persons providing the programme service", the producer and director, and "any person by whom offending words or behaviour are used".
Mike Schwarz, a solicitor specialising in public order law, said: "Channel 4 and the three contestants making the remarks could be prosecuted under the 1986 Public Order Act or the 1997 Prevention of Harassment Act."
What are the police doing?
Hertfordshire police, which covers the Big Brother house, had 30 calls from the public "relating to alleged racist behaviour", and passed them to the broadcasting regulator Ofcom.
This seemed at odds with the definition of a racist incident in the 1999 Macpherson report which defined a race hate crime as "any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person".
Last night the force appeared to be reversing its position, saying it would be conducting an inquiry, "including a review of tapes", said a spokesman for Hertfordshire Police.
17.01.2007: Channel 4 reassures Big Brother sponsor
17.01.2007: Celebrity Big Brother row goes global
17.01.2007: Celebrity Big Brother complaints explode
17.01.2007: Germaine Greer on Celebrity Big Brother
17.01.2007: Hari Kunzru on Celebrity Big Brother
16.01.2007: Record complaints for Big Brother
16.01.2007: Celebrity Big Brother racism complaints soar
15.01.2007: Viewers complain of racism in Big Brother
16.01.2007: Internet intensifies Big Brother protest
13.01.2007: Sayer quits Celebrity Big Brother
08.01.2007: 'Fuddy duddy' Russell quits Big Brother
04.01.2007: C4 relies on celebrity antics to hold up ratings
04.01.2007: Ken Russell enters the Big Brother house
04.01.2007: C4 relies on celebrity antics to hold up ratings
03.01.2007: Celebrity Big Brother hit by technical hitches
03.01.2007: Channel 4 offers wi-fi Celebrity Big Brother
Printable version | Send it to a friend | Save story