May 27, 2007

Racism lite masks reality on the streets

Don't let the outrage over the Channel 4 show lull you into believing it was an aberration. Discrimination is still horribly endemic in our society.

Stand by for the new and sanitised Big Brother. From Wednesday, contestants may be discussing Cartesian dualism while taking up incentivised recycling. Obviously, future housemates won't include anyone likely to stir up racial controversy, which rules out mouthy sub-celebrities and Margaret Hodge.

I'll come back to the industry minister, who argued in these pages last week for British families to be given housing priority over immigrants. Let's start, though, with the Channel 4 furore and the unprecedented rebuke issued, with Lord Chamberlain solemnity, by the media watchdog, Ofcom. Channel 4's future is said to be in the balance after code breaches over the alleged racist bullying of the Bollywood actor, Shilpa Shetty.

In general, moral outrage about the arts (I use the word loosely) grows to look absurd. The attack on George Eliot's Adam Bede as 'the vile outpourings of a lewd woman's mind' now seems as preposterous as East Germany's 1954 ban on Mickey Mouse for being an anti-Red rebel. The case against Big Brother seems stronger, not least because of the 'cover-up' of unbroadcast footage in which some housemates attempted (rather unsuccessfully) to think up words that rhymed with 'Paki'.

This is disgusting stuff, but it is also just worth remembering the venom, bullying and excess that took place outside the Big Brother house. Jade Goody was reviled by the media as an evil 'face of hate', while her co-conspirators were 'bitches on heat'. Gordon Brown, in India, endorsed Shilpa, 50 MPs signed an early-day motion, and the Sun hailed Jade's eviction as 'the most important [ballot] since the general election'.

The mood is just as febrile now. Channel 4 executives have been reviled, with some justification, for their slippery and mendacious ways. The failure to tell an Australian Big Brother contestant that her father had died has reinforced Stephen Fry's view that all reality television is 'squalid and dreadful'.

There is something unsettling about all this outrage. The Ofcom report, measured as it is, hints at what one TV executive calls 'regulation by public relations'. More importantly, it soothes people into believing that no right-thinking Briton will tolerate a whiff of racism. The 44,500 viewers who objected to Channel 4 can be assured that such a horror will never be repeated.

Should these complainants be at a loose end, however, there are a few outstanding nationality-related issues, none of which rated much mention in the week Celebrity Big Brother got its come-uppance. In Norwich, seven young men walked laughing from court after receiving suspended jail sentences for 'a ferocious and unprovoked' attack, in which they kicked, punched and spat on two Polish workers.

Newspaper reports of 'floods' of east European migrants supposedly leeching off state hand-outs masked the truth...that migration from the new EU countries, which is vital to the economy, seems to have passed its peak, and only 8,000 Romanian and Bulgarian job-seekers arrived in the first quarter this year, against predictions of a 300,000 influx in 20 months.

In the third, and saddest, example, a report by the Immigration Law Practitioners' Association charted the plight of unaccompanied refugee children, many of them Afghans, who arrive in Britain alone and traumatised after unthinkable journeys. Thousands of boys as young as 13 are being reassigned as adults by the immigration service, and so disqualified from the education and foster care they need.

Discrimination is not cooked up in the Big Brother kitchen. It seeps down from the top, not in rivers of blood but in such meandering streams of cause and effect that people barely notice how shamingly endemic it has become. A quarter of white children live in poverty, compared with 74 per cent of Bangladeshis, 60 per cent of Pakistanis and 56 per cent of black Africans. Stephen Byers, a former cabinet minister, tells our political editor today that, in parts of the country, we are 'sleepwalking towards the segregation of schools on racial grounds'.

This shadowy apartheid means that a child's future is dictated by race, not by ability. Employers overlook or underpay non-whites, and black people are five times as likely as white ones to be stopped and searched. On Prison Reform Trust figures for 2002, more African Caribbean entrants went to jail (11,500) than to university (8,000). Far from highlighting these imbalances, the Big Brother row has diverted attention from real scandals.

Tony Blair, who has had difficulty untangling reality from illusion ever since he urged that Deirdre Barlow of Coronation Street be freed from jail, said at the height of the Big Brother furore that any perception that Britain tolerated racism had to be 'regretted and countered'. So how unfortunate that, just before Ofcom underlined that message, Blair's industry minister used what education secretary Alan Johnson later called 'the language of the BNP'.

The Jade Goody of the government front benches appeared to be suggesting that newly arrived migrants living in damp squalor with an asthmatic child should be leapfrogged by the less needy indigenous family. This is a loathsome argument, especially since migrants currently get only a tiny percentage of social housing.

I am glad, though, that Mrs Hodge spoke out. Although several of her colleagues professed horror, she is unique only in venturing into nationality. Other ministers have backed constituents who feel their loyalty to the sitting MP is being tested by neighbours with anti-social ways and hellish children. The most illiberal policies of Blair's tenure have been built on intolerance of one sort or another.

It is easy to imagine Jade, Jo and Danielle as wavering Hodge supporters, though there is no evidence that any of them would ever vote BNP. However vile their conduct, this was television, not the Old Kent Road. Where reality shows serve any purpose, it is surely to spark neuralgia in a complacent society.

If Big Brother got out of hand, then the reaction has matched it. Besides, a sort of weird justice has been done. Jade is no longer 'the 25th most inferlential [sic] person in the world'. Shilpa has been to Parliament and met the Queen. It would be more than a pity if Channel 4 were now to be privatised by Gordon Brown and Big Brother made into a talking shop for housemates with Lady Bracknell manners, a tofu habit and a social conscience.

Such a result would demonstrate the very intolerance that the programme's critics deplore. It would also smash one small mirror on a country much more divided than it ever notices. Evidence of racism and dishonesty can never be justified or ignored. Nonetheless, the suspicion remains that the Big Brother circus has become what Jade would call an 'escape goat' for much more dangerous failings.


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