Voting for Britain

Eddie Ford takes a closer look at the 'racism row' in the Celebrity big brother house

Well, did you do your patriotic duty last week? No, not cheering on the England cricket team (unless you enjoy backing lost causes) - voting to kick out the "vile" "dimwit", Jade Goody - to use the less than kind words of The Sun - from the Celebrity big brother house (or asylum, as some would view it).

If you did, then come eviction night on January 19, you were part of the millions who voted by a thumping 82% to boot out Goody in favour of retaining the "high caste" (a common appellation) Bollywood actress, Shilpa Shetty. Gordon Brown, for one, must have heaved a sigh of deep relief when the results flashed through on his laptop (along with the Endemol bosses who produce Big brother and want to sell it to Indian broadcasters). After all, when visiting the Bollywood studios in Mumbai - where he had described himself as a "disciple" of Mahatma Ghandi - Brown claimed that he was "not going to tell people how to vote", as "it's for people to decide for themselves". Oh no, most surely not. But then he immediately added: "But I think a vote for Britain is a vote for tolerance". In other words, Brown was exhorting the British populace to vote against Goody - and do it quick, especially given the fact that only the day before there had been angry anti-CBB demonstrations on Indian streets.

As for Ken Livingstone, his "delight" at Goody's downfall was slightly tempered by the nightmarish consequences that had just been so narrowly averted - without Shetty's continued occupancy of the CBB house, the "image of Britain across India, which is the second-biggest investor in London after America now, would have been really damaged and it would have done a lot of harm to people's jobs". Yes, Goody represented a national threat to investment, jobs and profits.

In more down to earth mode, The Sun declared "Goody riddance" on its front-page, and went on to sensibly state that the popular vote which booted out Goody's eviction was "the most important since the general election" (January 20).

By now, of course, everyone knows about the bad-tempered altercations that occurred on CBB - all quite inevitable really, given the 24/7 claustrophobic, hot-house atmosphere that prevails in this rather grisly but extremely popular cultural-social experimental 'laboratory'. Even Ghandi himself would have blown his top a few times if he had been cooped up for weeks in such an artificial environment with such petulant and ill-educated (minor) celebrities.

So Shetty is the alleged victim of racism - though she herself has denied that there was "any racial discrimination happening from Jade's end". The other possible racist culprits are Danielle Lloyd, a 'glamour model'; Jo O'Meara, a member of S Club 7; Jack Tweed, Goody's boyfriend, and Jackiey Budden, Goody's mother.

Given that CBB is heavily edited for terrestrial TV purposes - out of sheer necessity, of course - it is still not entirely clear who said what to who, and why. For instance, much has been made of the fact that Goody (rather poorly) mimicked Shetty's accent. But then again, Shetty did the same to Goody, mildly mocking her inability to properly enunciate the word 'whale' .

True, Lloyd (who purportedly believes that Winston Churchill was the first black president of the United States) did complain that Shetty "can't even speak English properly". But that was surely more a crime of grievous stupidity rather than racism - ever more so when we consider that Shetty can speak an impressive 10 languages (which is at least nine more than Lloyd). And, yes, Lloyd did request that Shetty "fuck off home" - but it is a matter of fact that the Indian actress is not a UK citizen or resident.

More seriously, perhaps, Tweed was said to have called Shetty a 'Paki' - which is surely an unambiguously racist term (even though she comes not from Pakistan, of course, but from Karnataka in southern India, originating from the Bunt community). However, Channel Four quickly issued a terse statement saying that Tweed actually described Shetty as "a 'cunt', not a 'Paki'" - so that's all right then: no racism there.

What is undeniable is that Goody renamed the Indian as "Shetty Poppadom" and - in a now notorious, high-octane outburst which will probably live forever on the internet - lambasted her for being a "fucking fake" who needed "a day in the slums". Agreed, not particularly pleasant, maybe not even fair. But, on the other hand, given that Shetty is multi-millionaire actress being paid £250,000 to appear on CBB ...

Naturally, as is always the case when accusations of racism are flung about, they are instantly enveloped by distortion, hyperbole and exaggeration - with a nice bit of moral panic thrown in for good measure. So it later transpired that the 'racist' Budden - who became an object of prurient tabloid fascination upon her daughter's first appearance on Big brother in 2002 for being a lesbian with only one arm - turns out not to have been a Rastafarian for the last 19 years, as she originally claimed, but was actually a practising muslim who prayed while in the CBB house (but the prayers were cut from footage shown in the nightly TV updates).

As for the supposedly racist Goody, she herself is of mixed race origin and is now under police escort - and has been allegedly so traumatised by the entire affair, she is now undergoing psychiatric treatment. If Goody's eviction from CBB was an anti-racist victory, as some seem to feel, then it seems reasonable to think that it was not exactly anti-racism's finest hour either.

But, whatever the exact wrongs and rights of the case, a record 38,000 complained about the programme to Ofcom, the media watchdog. Worried about its brand image being tainted by association with racism - which is clearly bad for profits - Carphone Warehouse withdrew its £3 million sponsorship money. The Perfume Shop promptly did the say - temporarily dumping Goody's 'Shh ...' range of perfumes. There is even talk about binning the paperback edition of her biography.

On the official political front, culture secretary Tessa Jowell steamed in to say CBB was "disgusting" and "racism being presented as entertainment" - an absurd exaggeration. Thirty-five MPs signed a Commons motion condemning CBB and the usual suspects lined up to castigate it - Trevor Phillips, Keith Vaz, Lee Jasper, etc. In particular Phillips, the well-remunerated head of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights, fulminated about CBB's "noxious brew of old-fashioned class conflict, straightforward bullying, ignorance and quite vicious racial bigotry". Inevitably, given such a flurry of outrage, many voices were calling for CBB to be pulled from the airwaves - that is, for it and hence the viewpoints being expressed on it to be effectively censored.

Now, you could take the view that CBB - and all things like it - are just far too trivial for communists to bother with, and that we obviously have far more important things to do with our time. But that would be profoundly philistine - and just plain foolish.

First of all, millions of people watch and enjoy, on some level or another, Big brother - just like they do the soaps. The record viewing figures for CBB alone amply demonstrate this - reaching 8.8 million at its peak (thus financially offsetting Carphone's desertion, one would venture). Why? Because people, especially young people, want to learn more about relationships and social interaction in general. How do or how should people behave in modern life? How should family, sexual and interpersonal relations be conducted? How to relate to gays or lesbians? What to say to an incredibly wealthy actress? Do I have anything in common with so-and-so? And so on.

All these issues are highly charged with politics - so, yes, in this sense, the personal is political. Furthermore, as any communist worth her salt should know, soaps and 'reality' TV shows like BB are transmission belts for bourgeois ideas and social values - which need to be combated. The class struggle is reflected in CBB like anywhere else.

Secondly, measures and legislation which bureaucratically close down shows, and potential arenas, like CBB can only be counterproductive at the very least - and, in all likelihood, will only act in a retrogressive way to prevent debate, 'serious' or otherwise, about racism and other such important issues. Reactionary, malicious, stupid and, yes, racist ideas - which probably all swished around on some level of non-sophistication around the CBB house - are best fought in the open, not forced underground, where they can only fester and eventually gain strength. From that perspective, you could argue that the Channel Four/Endemol bosses were not being entirely disingenuous when they made out that CBB was performing some sort of 'public service' by allowing such a debate - if you want to call it that - to be aired.

In many ways, the CBB 'scandal' only serves to reveal the extent, and degree, to which bourgeois anti-racism is now the official - or 'institutional' - ideology of the UK state, and how it fears anything which upsets the ideological apple cart. So much so that even - of all people! - the hapless Goody (for all the £8 million or so she had made by becoming part of the BB celebrity circus) has to be condemned and indeed demonised in a quite grotesque manner.

Even more to the point, at least for communists, is that events like CBB make clear the dangers posed by official or bourgeois anti-racism - which reduces us all to the status of rival supplicants to the 'enlightened' state, desperate for any grace or favours it might bestow upon us if we behave, or perform, in the correct manner.

Tragically, and criminally, the left - by and large - has dogmatically insisted that the state is somehow 'institutionally racist' - yet at the same time has bought almost hook, line and sinker into the anti-racist ideology of that state, merely complaining that it does not 'go far enough' and thus constituting itself as a 'left' appendage to bourgeois society. We saw how the left, especially the likes of the Socialist Workers Party, lined up to welcome the Macpherson report and its palpably absurd definition of a "race hate crime" as being "any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person" (my emphasis). In other words, a 'definition' of racism which is so broad that it can cover almost anything - if it so suits the interests of the state. Far from the Macpherson report being a progressive gain wrested from the reluctantly 'institutionally racist' state, it has had an overall deleterious effect upon free speech and rational debate.

Predictably, some leftist conspiracy theorists are convinced that Channel Four - or Endemol - have craftily edited the material in order to deliberately rake up racial tension. This seems highly unlikely, to put it mildly. If anything, any frantic editing of the footage would have been done in order not to fall foul of current legislation. An offensive remark - perceived or otherwise - made by any of the contestants could see Channel Four in deep trouble, so why not 'blip' it out instead?

Such apprehensions are not unfounded, of course. Thus Hertfordshire police are currently "investigating" Channel Four and CBB for any contraventions of section 22 of the Public Order Act 1986 - which talks about broadcasts "involving threatening, abusive or insulting visual images or sounds". An offence would be committed if it was judged that Channel Four intended "to stir up racial hatred" or if "racial hatred is likely to be stirred up". Indeed, in theory someone could end up in prison thanks to the CBB spats - section 22 also 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".

Hardly sounds like a manifestation of 'institutionalised racism', does it?

Interestingly enough, the latest issue of Socialist Worker does try desperately, though not valiantly, to talk up the racism on display at CBB. In a rather lurid article which takes its cue from Tessa Jowell's comments, Stephen Philip lingers inordinately on how reality TV has "made good on its promise, as CBB showed us a postcard from reality - the banal everyday racism in Britain" - and goes on about "the ever present murmur of racism that is often detected in streets, playgrounds and workplaces was finally given the international spotlight last week", as "most of the kinds of things we heard on BB were, and are, the insidious dark chatter of everyday life .... But why was 'racism as entertainment' allowed so much airtime by a public service broadcaster?" (January 27).

But even comrade Philip is cheered up by the "beacon of hope that can be seen in the unprecedented numbers of ordinary people who were disgusted by Channel Four's cynical handling of the event", and on the letters page Richard Sunderland from Leeds observes that the "level of outrage proves that such racist views are not the norm, and that, while there is clearly a long way to go, we may be winning the argument" (my emphasis).

Was it Channel Four they were "disgusted" with or was it Goody? Surely comrade Sunderland is nearer the mark - why shoot the messenger when you can target the person actually being so offensive? And, racism or not, is it not better that "ordinary people" should take sides and deliver their verdict - even in this distorted form, when a vote to evict Goody was dubbed a "vote for Britain" - than insist that the authorities take the matter out of their hands?

As CBB has shown, both negatively and positively, the only way forward when it comes to fighting racism, or anything else, is open debate and argument - not bans and censorship.