People with learning difficulties have marched on the offices of the communications watchdog Ofcom in protest at its failure to condemn the use of offensive, disablist language on a Channel 4 show.
Footballer-turned-actor Vinnie Jones caused outrage when he “joked” on Big Brother’s Big Mouth that presenter Davina McCall walked “like a retard”, with McCall laughing and replying: “I do not walk like a retard.”
Channel 4 eventually apologised after receiving complaints about the incident in late January.
But campaigners were shocked when Ofcom failed to uphold their subsequent complaint.
In its decision, Ofcom said the use of the word was part of “light hearted banter” and “not directed at someone with a mental or physical disability” and so was “not used with the intention to describe or offend members of society with learning difficulties”.
It also said the use of the word was not “entirely at odds with the established nature of this programme, which is known for its lively and outspoken content”.
Ofcom merely advised Channel 4 that the repetition of the word by McCall was “unfortunate” and it would have been “more appropriate to move on rapidly instead of discussing it further”.
Furious at the decision, disabled protesters – backed by the charities Respond and The Elfrida Society – this week delivered letters to the chair and chief executive of Ofcom.
The letters were signed by nine people with learning difficulties, eight of whom are involved in running London’s successful Wild Bunch club nights. Most of them took part in the protest.
Their letter says: “We feel let down by Ofcom, which is perpetuating a negative image of disabled people, by not condemning guests and presenters who use hate speech on TV – thereby signaling to viewers that this is acceptable.”
The letter says Jones’s “walk” mirrored the actions of the young thugs who persecuted Fiona Pilkington and her daughter Francecca. Pilkington killed herself and Francecca, who had learning difficulties, after they were the victims of a sustained hate campaign.
Jackie Ryan, one of the protesters, said they were “really annoyed” with Ofcom’s decision not to uphold the complaint.
She said: “I think it’s out of order. Ofcom should do something about it.
“We were extremely cross. They need to look at themselves in the mirror and see how they feel.”
And she said Vinnie Jones and Davina McCall should be forced to apologise on television.
Ofcom said it was now reviewing its decision.
Channel 4 said it regretted that McCall had not “admonished” Jones for his comment and apologised to viewers at the time.
And she said the comments had been removed from the video-on-demand version of the programme.
4 March 2010