London, May 24: Channel 4 has been slapped down by the media watchdog, Ofcom, for “serious editorial misjudgement” in allowing Shilpa Shetty to be subjected to racist abuse during the last series of Celebrity Big Brother.
Ofcom was forced to conduct an investigation on whether Channel 4 had breached broadcasting rules after receiving an unprecedented 44,500 complaints from viewers.
Ofcom may now itself come in for criticism because it has chosen not to fine Channel 4. Instead, Channel 4 will have to deliver an on-screen apology when the eighth series of (non-celebrity) Big Brother begins next week.
In its long-awaited report, Ofcom identified three occasions when it felt Channel 4 had failed to act appropriately.
They were: Jade Goody referring to Shetty as “Shilpa Poppadom”; Danielle Lloyd, one of the other contestants, saying that Shetty should “f*** off home”; and the argument over Shilpa cooking chicken, which ended with Lloyd and Jo ’Meara — the third member of the gang — making derogatory comments about Indian eating habits.
“Ofcom takes allegations of racist abuse and bullying on television extremely seriously,” said a spokesman for the media watchdog.
Shilpa (in picture), who has not looked back since emerging the winner of the reality television show, saw no point in attacking the channel that has given her career new life.
“I have no grudges against anybody — not the people who head Channel 4, not the people who were in the house with me,” responded Shilpa. “I’ve moved on. For me it’s a closed topic.”
She went on: “It was really clear right from the beginning in our contract that we were responsible for our actions and they would protect us if we got assaulted or if any of the housemates got (physically) aggressive. It was our problem, we had to deal with it and that was the whole deal.”
Asked whether she felt anyone was at fault, Shilpa replied: “I don’t want to blame anybody. If people didn’t want to watch it then they shouldn’t have watched it.”
Keith Vaz, Labour MP for Leicester East who was the first to raise Shilpa’s predicament in the Commons, was less forgiving about Channel 4’s management.
Calling for the resignation of Andy Duncan, Channel 4’s chief executive, Vaz declared: “Andy Duncan should now apologise to Shilpa Shetty and realise that the contempt that was shown by them during this whole episode, in my view and that of many of the viewers who complained, now merits his resignation.”
Duncan said no one would be forced to resign over the affair.
“There were procedural errors and there was human error,” said. “But I don’t think human error is a disciplinary offence.”
Duncan conceded: “We absolutely accept that mistakes were made. Our focus now is on learning lessons from this. We accept that we were not sufficiently responsive to the audience and the level of offence caused to the public.”
Programme makers Endemol said the unseen footage had not come to light immediately because junior producers had failed to pass it on to bosses.
“As soon as senior producers became aware of this footage, immediate action was taken by Endemol and Channel 4, and Ofcom’s findings recognise this,” a company spokesman said. “We accept Ofcom’s findings and sincerely regret the level of offence caused by events in this series.”
The spokesman then commented: “Ofcom’s findings acknowledge that controversy is an integral part of Big Brother. However, we accept that events in Celebrity Big Brother five caused a high level of public offence which we did not intend. We are grateful to Ofcom for recognising that the events of this series were in no way engineered or manufactured.”
Culture secretary Tessa Jowell, who previously described the programme as “racism being presented as entertainment”, welcomed Ofcom’s ruling.
She said: “Public service broadcasters hold a very special place of trust with the British people, and it is right that they are held to account by the regulator when there are issues of public concern. Errors of judgement were made which Channel 4 has acknowledged. I therefore welcome the measures that they have taken to ensure proper and rigorous oversight. We will be watching very closely to ensure that these have the desired effect.”