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Text Of OfCom’s Decision After Review Of Celebrity Big Brother Disablism Complaints

May 24, 2010

I was told about this decision this morning by Nicky Clark, who is happy with it. I am still waiting for an on-air apology from Channel 4, but today’s decision is a small victory in this campaign and also for all those who continue to fight against disablism. Here is the full text of the decision, taken from here.

Decision

Ofcom has a duty to ensure that generally accepted standards are applied to the content of radio and television services so as to provide adequate protection from the inclusion of harmful or offensive material. In applying those standards, Ofcom is required, by the Communications Act 2003, to do so “in the manner that best guarantees an appropriate level of freedom of expression”.

In relation to generally accepted standards, including those in relation to offensive or discriminatory language, Ofcom recognises that what is and is not generally accepted is subject to change over time. When deciding whether or not particular broadcast content is likely to fall within generally accepted standards it is necessary to first assess the character of the content itself and then assess the context in which that content is broadcast. In the case of discriminatory language this would involve assessing the potential for offence and balancing that against the particular editorial or contextual justification for broadcasting such language. Importantly, Ofcom does not prohibit the use of any words. Broadcasters may be able to justify the broadcasting of language and material which the audience may find offensive.

The Committee first examined the language used in this case in order to assess the potential it had for causing offence. In doing so the Committee recognised that the use of discriminatory language of this nature can be profoundly offensive to some viewers as it singles out a minority in society. Ofcom’s own research3 into offensive language identified that the word “retard” is quite polarising. Those people who consider it offensive do so because it is a derogatory term that refers to a disability.

The Committee recognised that the potential offence caused by a discriminatory word such as “retard” depends on the context in which it is used. For example, when using such words in a scripted drama the potential to offend may be lessened as the language may be used to identify the views or personality traits of a particular fictional character.

In the Committee’s opinion, however, the comments made by both Mr Jones and Ms McCall in this programme were clearly capable of causing offence. In reaching this view, the Committee noted that the use of the word “retard” by Mr Jones, although arguably intended as a joke and not aimed at an individual with learning difficulties, could be seen as being a comment on people in society with a particular disability.

This was reinforced by Mr Jones demonstrating walking with difficulty when imitating the way in which Ms McCall had walked. Mr Jones then unfavourably compared the walk with that of fellow housemate Nicola Tappenden, which he described as “lovely”. It was the Committee’s view that his use of the word “retard” was capable of being understood not as merely a passing reference directed towards Ms McCall, but also as ridiculing those with a physical or learning difficulty, emphasised by his attempt at imitation.

The Committee was particularly concerned that not only was Mr Jones’ comment not corrected but that it was repeated by the presenter, Ms McCall, without any apparent recognition of its potential to cause offence. The Committee, while acknowledging
this was a live show, considered that in this instance the action of Ms McCall had the potential to heighten the offence to viewers.

The Committee was also concerned that the programme makers took no action during the programme to seek to mitigate the offence that would have been caused by the comments. The Committee noted Channel 4’s admission that it “would normally respond to a comment of that nature by asking the presenter to admonish the person responsible and if appropriate, apologise to the audience”. It said that, due to human error, it had failed to do so on this occasion.

In the Committee’s opinion that failure suggested a lack of understanding during the live broadcast of how offensive the comments had been.

The Committee then examined any other contextual factors which might have limited the potential for offence. It took account of the fact that Big Brother’s Big Mouth is well known for its irreverent style, outspoken humour and studio banter, and that many viewers are familiar with this format. It also noted that this programme has always been broadcast live and well after the watershed, and that this particular broadcast was preceded by a warning about the content. The Committee recognised that viewers would have expected the programme to contain challenging humour as well as material likely to offend.

However, the Committee concluded that, on balance and in the circumstances of this particular case, there was insufficient context to justify the offence that was likely to be caused by the comments made during the programme. Therefore the broadcast breached generally accepted standards.

The Committee then went on to consider whether Channel 4 had taken immediate and appropriate steps to remedy this breach of generally accepted standards. The Committee noted the action taken by the broadcaster in response to the complaints made about the programme. In particular Channel 4 had voluntarily removed the comments from the Video on Demand (4OD) version of the programme after an internal review (albeit this was in response to a complaint several days after broadcast by an individual who is also a complainant in this case), and had apologised in writing to the complainant. The Committee also noted the measures taken by Channel 4 to ensure this does not happen again. The Committee considered these measures appropriate to remedy the breach of generally accepted standards and therefore considered the case resolved.

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