Channel 4 has again come under fire from disabled activists, after allowing a high-profile comedian to tell offensive, disablist “jokes” about the son of model Katie Price in his comedy show.
Campaigners say Channel 4’s refusal to remove the jokes from Frankie Boyle’s Tramadol Nights casts fresh doubt on the decision to grant it the UK licence to broadcast the 2012 Paralympics.
The broadcasting watchdog OFCOM launched an investigation after Price – whose son Harvey is disabled – submitted a complaint through her lawyer. She has also complained to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).
The latest incident will be among those discussed at a consultation event being held by the EHRC early next year – to which Channel 4 will be invited – as part of its inquiry into disability-related harassment.
Boyle, who is known for his offensive material, “joked” with his live audience that Price and her former partner were “fighting each other over custody of Harvey, although eventually one of them will lose and have to keep him”.
Boyle then went on to make another joke about Price and her son, which is too offensive to repeat.
The row comes less than four months after leading disabled activists wrote to Channel 4, accusing it of breaching the UN disability convention by referring to disabled people as “freaks of nature” in a trailer for a Paralympics documentary.
And in May, OFCOM condemned the use of offensive, disablist language by Davina McCall and Vinnie Jones on Channel 4’s show Celebrity Big Brother’s Big Mouth.
Jaspal Dhani, chief executive of the UK Disabled People’s Council and one of those who wrote to Channel 4 about the Paralympics trailer, said Boyle’s “jokes” would encourage disability hate crimes such as bullying and harassment.
He said: “The Frankie Boyle incident is disgraceful. Channel 4 should be ashamed.
“The latest example supports our view that Channel 4 does not understand what the issues are.”
Dr Ju Gosling, co-chair of the LGBT disabled people’s organisation Regard and another of those who wrote to Channel 4, said: “This vile so-called humour is what fuels hate crime around the country. The real question is why Channel 4 allowed it to be broadcast.
“It is not enough to say that a comedian ‘has a go at everyone’; most comedians would condemn this as well.
“It is about time that the government asks why Channel 4 continues to be trusted with the Paralympic coverage when they also believe that describing disabled people as ‘freaks of nature’ in relation to sport is not only acceptable but ‘empowering’.”
Alison Walsh, Channel 4’s disability executive, said Boyle was “a master of saying the unsayable” and “confronting taboos”, and she claimed the jokes were satirical and aimed not at Harvey Price but at “media hypocrisy and celebrity culture”.
She said: “I don’t think there is any area that he leaves untouched. It’s satire. He takes it right to the line and then steps over it.”
She said the jokes had “gone through an editorial process”, and added: “I feel that everything in those shows I am prepared to defend. I am very well aware it will not be to everybody’s taste.”
She said the reason Channel 4 won the right to broadcast the Paralympics was because of its “brilliant and bold treatment of disability” over the years and because it was a company that would “take some risks”.
She added: “It was our record on disability that helped win the bid.”
But Dhani said: “It’s not pushing the boundaries, it’s going beyond the boundaries.
“You wouldn’t hear that kind of argument being applied to a comedian who used derogatory terms around race. It would not be tolerated. Why is it seen as pushing the boundaries when we are talking about disability?”
And he said the jokes were clearly aimed at Price’s son rather than her.
In a statement on her website, Price accused Boyle of bullying her son, and said Channel 4’s decision to broadcast the material showed “a complete and utter lack of judgment”.
A spokesman for her lawyers, Archerfield Partners, said: “The view we have is that Channel 4 are being discriminatory. They clearly feel that it is acceptable to do this with respect to disability when they would not do [it]about race or sexuality.”
OFCOM said it had launched an investigation after receiving a complaint from Price’s lawyers and “a number of other” people.
If found guilty of a breach of OFCOM’s broadcasting code, Channel 4 could face a heavy fine or be forced to broadcast an apology.
16 December 2010