Racism’s true face, as seen on Big Brother

Published in the Evening Standard

We should be grateful to Celebrity Big Brother. Not a sentence I expected to write, I confess. After all, the Big Brother house has become a kind of latter-day Bedlam, a place of misery which demeans those gazing in as much as those condemned to be looking out. Like the Londoners of the 18th century who used to head to the Bethlem Royal Hospital to pay a penny “to view the freaks and laugh at their antics, generally of a sexual nature, or at violent fights,” this is an entertainment that reduces everyone involved.

So, ordinarily, I would not be rushing to offer thanks to Channel 4 and the masters of the Elstree house. But sometimes you have to make an exception. The sight of George Galloway in a leotard, lapping like a cat at the cupped hands of Rula Lenska, somehow captured the vanity and exhibitionism of the man more perfectly than any number of political interviews. And now, the producers have performed another, even more significant service.

For the row over the treatment of Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty has reminded us of something we’d prefer to forget. It has told us that, not very far below the surface of our society, there remains the most base, crude kind of racism.

Jo O’Meara, formerly of S Club 7, has been impersonating Shetty’s accent, in the manner of It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. She, along with ex-BB inmate Jade Goody and beauty queen Danielle Lloyd, grew irritated that the Indian star had touched their food. After all, said Lloyd: “You don’t know where those hands have been.” O’Meara wondered if Indians were thin because they often got ill, thanks to undercooking their food.

It could almost be a throwback to the 1970s when British ignoramuses accused British Asians of talking funny, eating funny and being vaguely dirty. And yet this is not the 1970s, but the 21st century, when we thought we had left such things behind.

Officially we have. Today all politicians unite in praising the different communities that make up our society. In London, the mayor lets not a day go by without singing a hymn of praise to the “diversity” that makes us great. Big business has joined the chorus. Try to find an advert or company report which does not feature a mixed collection of faces when it seeks to show off its employees or customers. We’re all tolerant now, we tell ourselves again and again.

Indeed, to read some of our papers, you’d think the only problem is that we’ve gone too far, that it’s political correctness gone mad, when the only people who need to feel frightened are middle-class whites. For everyone else, London has become a cosmopolitan nirvana.

This complacency has not been confined to white circles. I have heard both black and Indian Londoners note, with a hint of guilt, that in the post-9/11 era, the pressure on them has eased. Muslims are the target now, they note warily. To be Afro-Caribbean or Hindu does not, they said, stir the hostility it once did.

Then along comes Big Brother to puncture that complacency. It’s been a reminder that whatever the platitudes repeated by official London – the politicians, the media, the big companies – at street level, some attitudes are stubbornly persistent. It’s rare for our official, public space ever to reflect that: how often are the likes of O’Meary, Goody or Lloyd given an opportunity to reveal their true attitudes to such matters? Usually, they jabber away about nothing. But pull away the showbiz veneer, scrape off the inch-thick layer of foundation, and look what you see underneath.

And there will be hundreds of thousands of Londoners who, when similarly candid, would talk just the same way. Note the testimony of novelist Hari Kunzru in yesterday’s Guardian, discussing the refusal by “celebrity” Jackiey Goody to learn Shetty’s name. That, said Kunzru, was “straightforwardly racist – every British Asian will have had that conversation at least once, complete with self-righteous complaints about the ‘difficulty’ of the task.” We should remember that next time we immerse ourselves in a warm bath of self-congratulation about British tolerance. On this point perhaps the smartest assessment has come from a former BB inmate, Narinder Kaur: “Lets not be shocked there’s racism in the house; there’s racism in society.”

She went on to say that viewers should be shocked, however, by Channel 4’s failure to act, even in the face of many thousands of complaints. Shocked perhaps, but surely not surprised. Does any one doubt that C4 executives are delighted by this turn of events? An ailing franchise, with a list of unknowns masquerading as celebrities, has suddenly been given a transfusion of publicity you couldn’t buy: condemnation from Gordon Brown, an echo from Tony Blair and questions raised in the House of Commons. Yesterday came the proof that it’s working: the ratings have surged.

What should Channel 4 do? They could send a powerful message by simply evicting, without fanfare, the three offending housemates. That could have an electrifying effect on playgrounds up and down the land, setting as powerful an example to young people as a referee showing a red card to a footballer guilty of hurling racist abuse. It would signal that some behaviour is not acceptable, no matter how famous or highly paid you are.

The downside is that the evicted three would become free speech martyrs, Goody, Lloyd and O’Meara cast as victims gagged for speaking their mind. Which leaves another option. Instead of waiting for C4 to act, we could act ourselves. True, it would have the drawback of making the programme producers a lot of money, but a mechanism is there and waiting to be used. We simply have to pick up the phone and evict the three, one by one – and then vote for Shilpa Shetty to win the whole competition. That would send a message all right, about who belongs in today’s Britain – and who doesn’t.