Big Brother. Not the leader of Orwell’s claustrophobic dystopia, but a brightly coloured reality TV show format, that has waded into controversy in the UK this week. British viewers watched the programme with increasing discomfort, as loutish English celebrities bullied (and most say, racially abused) well known Bollywood actress, Shilpa Shetty, live on air.
The Big Brother concept has made a pretty packet for its creator, Endemol, the brainchild of Dutchman, John de Mol, with the format being successfully sold to broadcasters in no less than 70 countries – most of which have been prime time hits. The format of the programme is simple. Contestants enter the “Big Brother” house to win cash prizes, or in celebrities’ cases “money for a favourite charity” although they are normally paid a hefty fee to turn up in the first place (in Shilpa Shetty’s case, a reputed £350,000). To win, contestants must avoid nominations for eviction from their housemates, with the public deciding whom amongst those nominated will ultimately get the boot. It could be a social experiment in hippy, free-loving communal living, except that the point of Big Brother is to foster division, arguments, and sexual tension, all of which makes for great ratings.
To a great deal of surprise, Shilpa “the Body” Shetty, a Bollywood siren, with at least 50 movies under her belt, and a command of 8 languages, shimmied off Bollywood screens and into the UK’s “celebrity” version of Big Brother at the beginning of this month. Given her 15 million pound fortune, and true A-list credentials, nobody understood why she would want to enter the Big Brother house with a bunch of International and British low life celebrities, the best of the bunch being, Dirk Benedict, yes “the Face” from the now defunct A Team, and Jermaine Jackson, brother of the now defunct Michael Jackson.
In doing so, the clearly successful Shilpa, has attracted a great deal of envy from the worst of the bunch: three non-entity, female English celebrities, who are famous for very little apart from once being in manufactured pop bands, or, indeed once having been in other reality TV shows. Jealousy, envy, and misunderstanding soon descended into intermittent slanging matches, and a clear policy of segregation. The bullies have mocked the laxative-like properties of her Indian cooking, made frequent silly jokes about Indians and India, said Miss Shetty should “fuck off back home”, repetitively mimicked and mocked her accent, excluded her from their conversations, refused to sit next to her in communal areas, and one woman – insisting that “Shilpa” was unpronounceable – opted to call her “the Indian” instead. Ms Shetty, while bearing the treatment with a great deal of dignity, has broken down on a number of occasions.
The issue has become emotive, and has been blown sky high. On Monday last week, Ofcom, the UK TV regulator, had received 2,000 complaints from the viewing public asking that the programme be pulled off the air – more complaints than had ever been received in relation to a single programme. By Tuesday, Asian MP, Keith Vaz, had tabled a motion in Parliament and by Wednesday Tony Blair expressed criticism of the show in the Commons. In the meantime, the hapless Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer (and Prime Minister in waiting) found himself in India struggling to reassure Indians that Britain prided itself on “fairness and tolerance”, as Shilpa Shetty’s treatment was brought up in press conferences, meetings with junior ministers, and finally with Manmohan Singh himself. By Thursday, the Carphone Warehouse, Big Brother’s main sponsor had withdrawn its £3 million sponsorship deal citing racism, and the perfume line brought out by one of the celebrity bullies was taken off the shelves. By Friday, David Cameron, leader of the opposition, urged viewers to “switch off”, and complaints at Ofcom had reached the heady heights of 30,000. Most worryingly of all, Gordon Brown, still stuck in India, and faced with public demonstrations and the smell of burning effigies, declared “a vote for Shilpa is a vote for Britain”. We knew then, that the shit had really hit the fan.
Finally, on Friday evening, the main instigator of the bullying, Jade Goody, was voted out of the Big Brother House, after a week of national soul searching, and a five day stretch of the programme continuously hitting the headlines in both the broadsheets and the tabloids. Every single person I have met over the past week has raised the issue, from my doorman, to the guys at work, to my most self interested friends, usually oblivious to the world around them. This is publicity no money could buy.
While people have been piling over each other to comment on the matter, it is Meera Syal, the comedian, who has hit the nail on the head. She says “What this treatment of Shilpa has done is remind a lot of Asian people in Britain of the type of uncomfortable treatment they’ve received themselves over the years.” Asians switched on in droves and worked themselves up into a kind of collective rage. They then switch on the PC in droves and sent hundreds of emails of complaint in a kind of collective avengement. It seems there is nothing that brings the Indian diaspora together like a Bollywood star being bullied – I should know, after just two days of watching the programme to see what all the fuss was about, I found myself angrily logging on to the Ofcom website along with everyone else.
Has the whole incident been blown out of all sensible proportion? On one level the answer is a clear yes. Why should playground taunts on a reality TV programme engage the public so much, when there are far more serious issues out there? At the end of the day, all the celebrities in the house will be evicted, collect their fat pay checks, and return to their lives of varying privilege. The Big Brother house, despite its tag of Reality TV, certainly isn’t any of the contestants’ true reality.
And yet, the BBC Asian Network has described the issue as their biggest story ever – bigger than Saddam’s botched execution, bigger than Inzamman Ul Haq’s cricket ban, bigger than the rise of the British National Party in last local elections. My view is, why should we all act so surprised? Every Asian in this country has experienced some degree of petty racism in some form or the other, and suffered some kind of silent grievance. This issue has shown that the Asian community in the UK, when united, is a force to be reckoned with. While no one would deny that a number of English viewers complained about the programme, it was the Asian community that forced the issue with regulators, the TV producers, and an Asian MP who forced the issue onto the floor of parliament.
What most members of minority communities know is that petty racism is much easier to identify with, than out and out racial abuse. Most of us would agree that we live in a broadly tolerant society, and certainly a society that has shown itself time and time again, to have at least, the right ideals, even if it sometimes falls short of them. But watching the treatment meted out to Shilpa Shetty, has served to highlight how difficult it is to identify racism. It would have been easier if one of the other contestants broke, and simply called her a paki. But instead we saw the singling out, the bitching, the bullying, and the creeping isolation that the Indian celebrity was subjected to. We were only able to put two and two together, because the programme enabled us to listen in to the conversations between the perpetrators who disclosed a number of ignorant and racist views. The frustrating thing was that Shilpa Shetty suspected she was the target of racial discrimination on some level, but had no way to prove it.
It was this, I suspect, that rankled most with Asian viewers – that we could see it happening, but she could not. Many of us could identify with the slow and painful realisation that we are encountering prejudice, but are defenceless against it, because it is simply a gut feeling that cannot be proved. Despite the pro equality policies, and the anti discrimination legislation in this country, calling treatment racist, is often still seen as playing the race card, and secretly people wonder whether the complainant is being overly sensitive, and to be quite frank, really rather weak. While racism is not a word that should be used lightly, many of us are frustrated, that we cannot call it like we see it.
The attitude of the broadcasters fuelled this frustration. Channel 4 knew that the row over racism was TV gold, but that continuing to air the programme (or at least refusing to discipline the offending housemates) could put both the producers and the channel at risk of race relations offences, and their public funding, and broadcasting license, at serious risk. The channel’s statements to the press, and official stance on the matter, were a case book study in legal obfuscation. Rather than mention the dirty “r” word, the producers first put Ms Shetty’s treatment down to “girly rivalry”. They then upgraded their assessment to “bullying”, and finally, when the issue exploded into international politics, put the whole thing down to a “clash of class and culture”, rather than racism. It was clear that the programme’s lawyers were busily working away in the background. Channel 4’s latest stance, has been that the programme has served the public interest in that it had helped to promote a discussion of racial tolerance – the language could have been lifted from the duties incumbent on the broadcaster under recent race relations legislation.
The dust has now settled, but this has been a fairly incredible week for race relations in this country. All of us watched while Shilpa Shetty, after a ninety minute conversation with the programme’s producers in the Big Brother House (reportedly persuading her that she had not suffered racism, and that an allegation of racism, would only harm her interests) made a statement that she did not think her treatment was a racist. In a twist, Jade Goody, has acknowledged that her behaviour in the house was racist, and has asked for forgiveness in true Mel Gibson style, clearly alive to the fact that her career is going down the toilet.
A number of other race related stories, have also floated into the news in the wake of Big Brother publicity. Most notably, the case of a criminal who had refused treatment from a Pakistani police surgeon, calling him a “fucking paki” and asking for an English doctor instead. Charged with racial harassment, a judge told the defendant that he should have called the doctor “a fat bastard” instead. Rather than taking anti discrimination seriously, it is clear that some, even those in power, are simply fostering, or permitting discriminatory treatment while ensuring the language used cannot be caught by the law. The important thing for people of this ilk, are the legal loopholes, and not the spirit of the law itself.
I must say that, despite my knee-jerk complaints to Ofcom, in retrospect, I am incredibly grateful this programme was not pulled off the air. It has exposed the sometimes two-faced response of the authorities to allegations of racism. It has also exposed the British viewing public to be unconditionally fair, and egalitarian – a public that I am glad to be part of. But most importantly, this year’s Big Brother has allowed the Asian viewing public to state categorically what is, and is not, accepted to be racist behaviour with a sense that they have every right to be here, and a confidence that they are welcome.