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Ofcom rules on Celebrity Big Brother racism rumpus

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TV watchdog Ofcom has administered a stern telling-off to Channel Four for its handling of the Shilpa Shetty Celebrity Big Brother racism rumpus.

For anyone who's spent the last year up a tributary of the Amazon, the Bollywood actress was subjected to some rough treatment at the hands of Jade Goody, Danielle Lloyd and Jo O'Meara, which Channel Four dismissed as "girly rivalry". The Ofcom ruling explains:

As the fifth series progressed, disagreements began to develop between some of the housemates, in particular, between Shilpa Shetty on the one hand and Jade Goody, Jo O'Meara and Danielle Lloyd on the other. Viewers, and others who were aware of the events in the House, became increasingly concerned that Shilpa Shetty was being subjected to bullying, some alleging that the bullying was racist. Ofcom received just over 44,500 complaints about Celebrity Big Brother 2007.

Specifically, Ofcom highlights three events:

Ofcom has considered whether a number of events in the House were in compliance with the Broadcasting Code. It has found that there were three events which were broadcast during the series which were in breach of the Code ... Ofcom has found that in relation to the following three incidents, Channel Four failed to appropriately handle the material so as to adequately protect members of the public from offensive material:

  • Remarks about Cooking in India (transmitted 15 January 2007)
  • "Fuck off home" comment (transmitted 17 January 2007)
  • "Shilpa Poppadom" comment (transmitted 18 and 19 January 2007)

The ruling continues:

...in relation to the incidents outlined ... above Channel Four failed adequately to apply generally accepted standards by justifying the inclusion of the offensive material by its context. It is Ofcom's view that when these three incidents were broadcast, Channel Four failed sufficiently to address the potential for offence or left this behaviour unchallenged. This resulted in offence being caused to a very large number of viewers.

Ofcom also considers that Channel Four failed in its handling of the incidents broadcast to take account of the cumulative effect of the events in the House. 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.

And the punishment? Ofcom declares:

In this case the Committee considers that the most appropriate sanction is to require Channel Four (and S4C) to broadcast a statement of Ofcom's findings in a form determined by Ofcom. Furthermore, the Committee decided that this should be broadcast on three separate occasions when it would reach the highest number of viewers. That is, at the start of the first programme of the new series of Big Brother and at the start of its re-versioned programme the following morning and also at the start of the first eviction show.

With series eight of the human zoo about to kick off, Ofcom duly warns Channel Four: "The committee would take very seriously any future failure of compliance leading to a similar situation as that which the committee has dealt with in this case." ®

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