The broadcasting watchdog Ofcom has come under attack again after ruling that an offensive, disablist routine by comedian Ricky Gervais did not breach its broadcasting code.
Channel 4, which broadcast Gervais’s stand-up show Science last October, has refused to apologise despite the comedian repeatedly describing the singer Susan Boyle as looking like “a mong”, a highly offensive term for people with Down’s syndrome.
In his routine, Gervais said: “…I don’t think she’d be where she was today if it wasn’t for the fact that she looked like such a fucking mong.”
He went on to say that there was “no better word to describe Susan Boyle” – who herself has a learning difficulty – but claimed the word was no longer used to describe someone with Down’s syndrome.
Channel 4 claimed the use of the word was justified in the context of a stand-up routine, and that Gervais’s humour “was rooted in the explanation of how language evolves”, while he had not intended to cause offence, and any “offence inherent in a joke of this nature was reduced by the programme’s late night scheduling”.
Ofcom ruled that although “several aspects of this content had the potential to cause considerable offence”, it “was justified by the context of this provocative comedy routine challenging the evolution of words” in a late-night broadcast.
But Michael White, drummer with the band Heavy Load, who has Down’s syndrome, said it was “a disgraceful word to use”.
He said: “It makes me upset, seeing other people not happy. If they can’t say something nice about disabled people they should go away. I don’t want to know them, go home.”
White, who said he was called a “mong” himself when he was younger, criticised Ofcom for ruling in Channel 4’s favour. He also said Channel 4 should have apologised over the incident.
Last year, his band produced their own version of the Ting Tings hit That’s Not My Name, with a video featuring disabled stars Mat Fraser and Pete Bennett, to protest at disablist hate language, including the use of words such as “mong” and “mental”.
The song is included on their latest album, Wham, which also features Walk Like Vinnie Jones, a song mocking the actor’s use of the word “retard” on Celebrity Big Brother.
Anne Novis, a leading disabled hate crime campaigner and a member of the Ministry of Justice’s hate crime advisory group, said she believed broadcasters that continued to allow the use of “abusive language and jokes to belittle disabled people” could be breaching their legal duties under the Equality Act.
She said: “The words we use to describe people can be hurtful, abusive and encourage others to view disabled people negatively.
“This then can lead to harassment and hostility as people feel justified in their attitudes by the way some media and broadcasters portray us.”
It is just the latest in a series of incidents in which Channel 4 has been criticised by disabled activists over the use of disablist language in its publicity material and by its presenters and stars.
The criticisms of Channel 4 are particularly sensitive as it will be the host broadcaster for the London 2012 Paralympics later this year.
A Channel 4 spokesman refused to apologise for allowing Gervais’s comments to be screened.
He said the channel had decided that to cut the comments out of the programme would have amounted to “censoring a stand-up performance”.
He added: “The editorial judgement we made was that that particular routine appeared in the context of a routine about the use of language. That is why we thought it was editorially justified to keep it in.”
An OFCOM spokesman said: “We do look at it on a case-by-case basis. If it were to happen again and the circumstances were different, it is not to say we wouldn’t make a different decision.”
On the same day as the Gervais ruling, Ofcom also cleared ITV of breaching the code after presenter Eamonn Holmes called one of his guests on This Morning “retarded”.
Ofcom said that although the word was capable of causing offence, it had been used unscripted in a live broadcast and Holmes had apologised on-air shortly afterwards, so it considered the case to be “resolved”.
26 January 2012