TOPICS: Racism: The invisible monster

Imagine this week, the duty producer on the UK’s Celebrity Big Brother, editing the tapes for that night’s show, had called over a superior and said: “Better look at this, guv.” Listening to the conversations between two of the housemates Jade Goody and Danielle Lloyd, the executive utters that sacred word of broadcasting caution, “Ooh-er!”, and decides that these scenes violate the regulation warning television against screening racially inflammatory material. If this had happened, the UK finance minister Gordon Brown’s visit to Asia would not have been interrupted by apologising to the Indian government over insults suffered by a Bollywood actress on a TV reality show and other ministers would not have been required to moonlight as TV reviewers on 24-hour news shows; and the front pages would be free for the dead of Iraq and David Beckham’s future. The world would seem a better place.

But would it really be? Only the consciences of those involved can know whether the eye they had on TV’s guidelines was distracted by the eye falling on the plummeting ratings for this series of the show. But the bigoted bullying of Shilpa Shetty destroys at a stroke the standard liberal sneer against reality TV: that everything screened is fake. While their comments were made more inflammatory by editing juxtapositions, the stupid hatred of these white women for a brown one was real enough. Put a hidden camera in pubs and clubs most nights and you would pick up similar footage, quiet racists saying things to friends that they would never voice to surveys or TV reporters.

A comment almost as wilfully stupid as the original anti-Indian remarks was CBB’s broadcaster Channel 4’s statement that the comments complained of were not racism but the result of a “culture clash”. The executive, though, had not ended racism; he had merely refused to let it appear on television screens. That was not a negligible achievement, at least ensuring that Britain’s most popular form of entertainment was no longer at risk of providing handy tips to bigots. However, the jokes and attitudes the broadcasters had outlawed, though their spread was limited, still thrived in some comedy clubs, workplaces and pubs. While Shetty deserves better than being litmus paper in a test of British idiocy, the screening of these scenes has had the possibly beneficial effect of ending any liberal temptation to believe that a monster you can’t see has gone away.

While being rude about the British working class has not traditionally led to violence or discrimination, division by skin colour has. Victory for Shilpa in the show’s

eviction fight would send a useful signal that TV and British society will not easily tolerate malignant xenophobia.

But the experience will only have any meaning if enough members of the publicity-inflated audience are taught by this affair to watch their own thoughts and words. Editing television is useless unless our culture can sincerely make the same cuts. — The Guardian