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The International Writers Magazine
Celebrity Big Brother

Shilpa Shetty in the House
Colin Todhunter

Week beginning 14 January 2007

 Pay a volatile mixture of famous personalities a shedload of money to live in an enclosed house, present them with certain annoying challenges and hope they’ll get on each other’s nerves, and let the nation vote them off the show one by one. The last one in is the winner. Welcome to the reality TV show Celebrity Big Brother.

Until last week, the ingredients for the 2007 series were producing a rather drab dish. Viewing figures were disappointing and hardly anyone was talking about it. Enter Shilpa Shetty.

The cast is mainly an assortment of desperate publicity seekers trying to revive flagging fortunes: has-been pop stars, media personalities, models and the talentless Jade Goody, whose main claim to fame is that she once won the non-celebrity version of the show. The show airs on Channel Four, and, early in the week, it belatedly hit the headlines but for all the wrong reasons: the media watchdog became inundated with viewers’ complaints about Ms Shetty being the target of racism and bullying, with Jade Goody being the main culprit. The controversy even haunted the British PM-in-waiting Gordon Brown during his stay in India. People were astounded that a TV show could actually be responsible for almost causing a diplomatic incident or even undermining international trade talks!

On Tuesday, a British politician claimed that the UK’s image was being tarnished by the antics of just two or three stupid, ill educated individuals who were in the house with Ms Shetty. The ignorance of some of the housemates was admittedly cringe worthy. One housemate asked another if Shilpa Shetty lived in a house or shack and if everyone in India (“or is it China?” someone chipped in – oh well, one of those strange faraway places) ate with their hands: the implication being that it was a such a dirty habit. At one stage, Goody referred to Ms Shetty as Shilpa Poppadom and someone asked why she didn’t just “go back home”. The respected film director Ken Russell, who had also signed up for the show, mounted a scathing attack on Jade Goody and a few of her cohorts by describing them as vulgar, objectionable guttersnipes who had no class whatsoever - that is unless “lower class” counts.

By Wednesday, the Shilpa saga was the main story on most UK news bulletins, which were carrying reports about protests on the streets of India by Shilpa Shetty’s fans. News reports made it clear to a public, which was largely unaware of Ms Shetty’s standing, that she has an almost goddess-like status in India, and implied that she is perhaps not used to having to mingle with certain British C list celebrities, some of who originally hail from the less salubrious parts of some less salubrious towns and cities in the UK.
In response to accusations of it condoning racist bullying as a form of entertainment, Channel Four said that what had been happening within the house was more a case of class and cultural differences. Well, class differences were present in abundance but the racism accusations failed to go away. The concept of “girly rivalry” was also forwarded to justify the sniping and arguing, and, indeed, such personality clashes are part and parcel of the show, with a potentially explosive mix of residents always certain to increase the ratings.
Unfortunately, bullying and intolerance are traditionally par for the course on the show as well: Shilpa Shetty was certainly on the sharp end of things from Goody and her sidekicks whose levels of personal insecurities would have been mind boggling to even the most qualified psychologist. Anyhow, Channel Four had got what it wanted all along: controversy.

After 38,000 viewers’ complaints and with senior government ministers attacking the show, the sponsor of Big Brother finally suspended its sponsorship. Amid the allegations of racism, the careers of Jade Goody and former “Miss Great Britain” Danielle Lloyd appeared to be in free fall. As a direct result of their behaviour on the show and while still in the house, Lloyd had lost a very lucrative modelling contract and Goody’s best-selling perfume had been withdrawn from the shops. Blissfully unaware of what was happening in the wider world, both Goody and Lloyd apologised to Ms Shetty for their behaviour, which they all agreed (including Ms Shetty) had been unacceptable but not racist.

The next day, Shilpa Shetty went head to head with her main tormentor, Jade Goody, on the weekly public vote. Thankfully, the British showed good sense and voted off the truly dreadful Goody by a landslide margin.

All of this has been a storm in an international teacup. But as the ratings sky-rocketed, Channel Four must have been relishing raking in big profits via the public voting mechanism, regardless of the loss of the three million pound annual sponsorship. That was until MP Keith Vaz urged the channel to donate the profits to charity. And, for the sake of good PR, the channel obliged.

Ms Shetty will receive a huge fee for appearing on the show, probably the largest sum out of all the contestants, but some may argue that there must be a better stepping stone to take from Bollywood to Hollywood or the West. Apart from such misgivings, thanks to an unnerving brew of race, politics, ratings grabbing and the ensuing publicity, her name is now on the lips of millions of people in the UK. Her agent must be very happy indeed and Ms Shetty seems likely to be the ultimate winner, both financially and in terms of publicity, regardless of whether she actually wins the competition (which she went on to do).
Throughout the saga, people in the UK were expressing concern that the nasty underbelly of British society was being exposed to the world. Perhaps that was not such a bad thing. As a result of the furore surrounding the show, the British became increasingly captivated by an image of their society reflected back at them by the drama being played out on their TV screens. While some of it made for uncomfortable viewing, at least it allowed society to engage in a dialogue with itself as a result of the issues that emerged. However, a lot of reality TV, including the consequent debates, is often trivial, unsophisticated and deliberately sensationalist. People in the UK remain unsure whether the ongoing proliferation of this type of “entertainment” on their screens is the kind of thing that Britain, as a modern society, either wants or deserves.
Week beginning 21 January
The debate about Celebrity Big Brother continues to simmer in the UK. The Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, has called for Channel Four to have its franchise revoked and some are saying that the show should have been taken off the air when the controversy over racism was at its height. The debate has taken many forms. Senior politicians were very embarrassed and twitchy over it, many of who had never watched the show. In certain quarters, the fashionable thing is to not watch the show, or at least not admit to having watched it, because it is tacky and way too low-brow. So what we had from Tony Blair and some senior ministers when questioned about the show was glib responses that went along the lines of: I have never seen the programme in question, but condemn all forms of racism outright. Well, for many commentators, that was just not good enough. These senior politicians were unable to engage in meaningful debate about the show and the issues it raised. And, as far as the public was concerned, that was highly unimpressive.

Others, of course, were all too ready to jump on the bandwagon and condemn the programme and its backers as racist. The tabloid newspapers were sometimes at the forefront of this condemnation — the very newspapers that have, in the recent past, run screaming headlines and sensationalist stories that bordered on racism about immigrants and asylum seekers. Whether what occurred was racist or not is open to long, protracted debate. Some argue that Jade Goody and her cohorts were engaged in intolerance and bullying. Others throw racism into the equation where any form of unacceptable behaviour is applied to certain ethnic groups particularly given Britain’s cultural and historical legacy of colonialism and slavery.

If the programme has done little else, it has placed racism in the public sphere of debate for a short period at least. This, in itself, is no bad thing given that it can be one of those topics that too often gets swept under the carpet, being regarded as too hot to handle. Racism affects millions in Britain but only seems to be debated on the back of an atrocity that emerges from time to time. However, some have argued that it is such a pity that racism has been placed on the agenda by a tawdry reality TV show, which manufactured the debate as a result of its own commercial interests. I have to agree, that is indeed a sad state of affairs. But, at the same time, the debate about commercial interests, popular culture and entertainment (reality TV in particular) has been thrown open and has come back to haunt Channel Four.

People who bemoan this state of affairs often refer to a more idealised realm of public debate, where reason triumphs over commercial or other forms of interest. But they may wish to consider that rational and reasoned debate is always open to distortion, compromise and coercion as a result of vested interests. The prevailing philosophy about public debate has been shaped by the premise that that an approximation of “the truth” can be achieved through the open exchange of dialogue. However, compromise, distortion and domination by one party over another usually replaces trust in reason and “enlightened” debate. Elected and unelected opinion formers such as politicians, business people, trade unions and the media are all playing to their respective constituents and the free and open exchange of ideas rarely leads to debates or policies based on objective reason and logic alone. So the public is left to analyse and contribute to debates that are always preset to some or other extent.

In an ideal world, the reports that cite the extent of racism in relation to access to housing, healthcare, employment, etc. should be leading the debate. Those reports document the marked inequalities that exist between ethnic groups and were available prior to Big Brother being aired but, regardless, there was no ongoing hue and cry about racism in Britain. The overwhelming majority of the public does not sit around reading reports or debating the issues in a university seminar room.

So what we are left with are debates instigated by reality TV, mischievous politicians or other groups, transmitted via the media, all of which have their own axe to grind. That’s the current reality we have. That’s the situation we must deal with. We may ban Big Brother, censure debate or do any other number of things but surely any debate is better than no debate. And somewhere along the line, within the chat-show debates and the caricature headlines emerging from the Big Brother fiasco, at least a degree of informed insight into the issues at hand will seep through. Hopefully.
28 January – Shilpa Shetty is declared the winner of Celebrity Big Brother!

© Colin Todhunter - Liverpool

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