Is Big Brother Bullying Its Way To Better Ratings?

We’ve all seen it, you may have even done it. Someone’s about to tell a risque joke, so they do a quick meerkat-like scan of the area to check that it can only be heard by its intended audience. Chances are they aren’t making a joke about the secret police, but rather, a joke about a disadvantaged minority.

Since Facebook and Twitter encouraged us to share whatever crud pops into our brain with the entire population of the internet, this familiar playground (and sadly, workplace) ritual has been replaced by an idle tweet. From people encouraging riots last year, to Liam Stacey’s vile comments about a stricken Fabrice Muamba that landed him in jail earlier this year, people are finding out the hard way that some things are not best publicly broadcast, or indeed, at all. Society has branded racism, sexism and bullying unacceptable, and rightly so. Could they ever be justified?

Maybe – if you’re running a TV show and could do with a fresh hit of ratings, it seems. While Celebrity Big Brother has done well since Channel 5 snapped up the rights, its civilian relation has not made so many headlines – until now. There’s no doubt that while outwardly they are distancing themselves from the spectre of bullying, privately TV bosses will be delighted with the column inches, which might explain why Conor is still in the house.

Channel 5’s Big Brother is now being investigated by media regulator Ofcom following allegations of racism and abuse, after contestant Conor McIntyre launched a tirade of abuse directed at fellow housemate Deanna Uppal, calling her a “f**king piece of s**t” and told her to stick her epilator up her “a**e” at the end of last month. As if plucking hairs wasn’t painful enough. This prompted 1,108 complaints from members of the public. Conor was brought to the diary room and reminded of the rules concerning behavior and language – a slap on the wrist.

Compare this to “Sachsgate” – a molehill that was turned into a mountain so tall the BBC could have sent Fearne Cotton (assuming she’s not tied up with her Royal Correspondent duties…) up there for Sports Relief. The answerphone messages left by Jonathon Ross and Russell Brand eventually cost the pair their jobs with the corporation, but whilst the content of their messages was hardly tasteful, it’s no where near the verbal assault that Conor dished out, without consequence from Channel 5, who defended the outburst as “out of character.”

If that wasn’t bad enough, accusations of racism were added when another housemate likened African American contestant Adam to a “ridiculous gorilla … with no sanitation”. Caroline quickly apologised, but still the comment attracted another 114 complaints. Then former contestant Victor Ebuwa, appearing as guest on the sister show Big Brother’s Bit on the Side, called guests “functioning retards”, which led to three complaints, surprising given the highly derogative nature of the remark. Yet, at the time of writing, Channel 5 has done little to rectify the situation.

Of course, Brand and Ross were employees of the BBC, funded by the license fee, as opposed to contestants on a reality game show where bitching and bickering is the modus operandi. But still, given recent events, it’s suspicious that Channel 5 hasn’t been more heavy-handed. Cynics among us might even suggest that they will be rubbing their hands together at the level of interest the incidents have garnered.

Obviously, Channel 5 are not bullies or racists, but it does seem like they are prepared to accept such occurrences as long as they bring ratings with them. It’s a risk, but it could net them many more viewers – the adage of “no such thing as bad publicity” appears to have been applied. It would be ridiculous, not to mention robustly authoritarian, to say that such material shouldn’t be aired, even if they are vile and poorly-advised. But should it be acceptable to court controversy in such a way? To use incidents of alleged bulling or racism as a draw for an audience is at worse exploitative, at best… Just nasty.

With Ofcom’s investigation expected to take several weeks, and Big Brother sponsor Schwarzkopf keeping a keen eye on events, we’ll have to wait and see whether this was a hit or a miss for Channel 5.