Ofcom, the UK’s communications and content regulator, must be working at full speed today. Yesterday I blogged about the complaints Ofcom had received about racist bullying on UK’s Celebrity Big Brother. The number of complaints went from 2,000 when I started blogging to 3,500 by the time I finished. Less than 24 hours later the reported total of complaints now stands at 16,400. Carphone Warehouse boss Charles Dunstone is considering pulling his firm’s sponsorship of the show. Tony Blair was asked about it at Primeminister’s question time. Chancellor Gordon Brown has spoken out against it whilst touring India. Elsewhere in India, there are protests on the streets. Back in the UK, the police are investigating death threats. I am half tempted to get in my car and drive the half hour to where the show is filmed to see if an angry mob is rioting outside.
So, what is the good news, you ask? Well, at least people are finding it easy to complain these days, and part of the credit must go to modern communications. The foolish and insensitive behaviour of a few self-absorbed minor celebrities is hardly the worst thing happening in the world today (is it even a surprise?), but it certainly is provoking many to speak out to condemn it. In condemning their behaviour, they are also establishing a standard they expect all to conform to, not just the fools promoting (or destroying) themselves by living in a box for a silly TV show. And thanks to the speed of electronic communications, the numbers of complaints can be counted and reported with only a short delay. The public relations people are unable to argue for a spurious balance in the media presentation of this news story, because we can all see the numbers of people that have been upset. Well done to Ofcom for getting its numbers straight for once (we hope) and for reporting them so quickly. Sadly, they have not yet decided to put up a real-time complaints counter on their home page (perhaps they would if Carphone Warehouse offered to sponsor it?)
But so far, there is no sign that the BB show will be cut short or that the offending people will be kicked off the screen. The increased attention has only helped ratings which must encourage Channel 4 to leave things unchanged. Until the victim complains personally, or somebody obviously oversteps the line, they can probably get away with leaving things as is. And I hope they do leave it on for as long as possible. However unseemly the behaviour of the contestants, it is glorious to find so many ordinary people empowered and willing to register their unhappiness about it. Although I feel sorry for the victim, Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty, I hope she will be able to look back and feel some greater good came from it. The response generated is helping to define expectations about acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, both on and off television. Society’s standards may seem too often to stem from an elite that is forgiving of the rich and famous (Lord Archer? Prince Philip?) and intolerant of the weaknesses of the rest of us. If this fracas defines better standards for everyone in society, and those high standards come from common ordinary people appalled by the actions of the representatives of wealth and celebrity, that can only be a good thing for us all.