OFCOM says Big Brother comment was offensive


Campaigners have welcomed the broadcasting watchdog’s decision to overturn its own ruling and condemn the use of offensive, disablist language on a Channel 4 show.

Footballer-turned-actor Vinnie Jones caused outrage when he “joked” on Celebrity Big Brother’s Big Mouth (BBBM) – on Channel 4’s sister channel E4 – that presenter Davina McCall walked “like a retard”, with McCall laughing and replying: “I do not walk like a retard.”

Channel 4 eventually apologised, but campaigners were shocked when Ofcom failed to uphold complaints about the incident.

Ofcom had argued that the word was used as part of “light hearted banter” and not “with the intention to describe or offend members of society with learning difficulties”.

But nine people with learning difficulties signed a letter protesting at the decision and several of them delivered it to Ofcom’s headquarters.

Now Ofcom’s broadcasting review committee has concluded that the comments in January were “clearly capable of causing offence” and could be viewed as “ridiculing those with a physical or learning difficulty”.

The committee said it was “particularly concerned” that McCall had repeated the “retard” comment “without any apparent recognition of its potential to cause offence”.

It also said that Channel 4’s failure to air an apology later in the show suggested “a lack of understanding” of how offensive the comments were.

The committee concluded that the incident “breached generally accepted standards”.

Because Channel 4 removed the comments from the show’s on-demand version, apologised in writing, and took measures to ensure such an incident did not happen again on BBBM, Ofcom said it would not impose any sanctions, such as a fine.

Jackie Ryan, one of the people with learning difficulties who delivered the letter to Ofcom, said she was “very happy” at Ofcom’s decision, but that it was “about time”.

She said it had been a “good idea” to deliver the letter so the watchdog could “see what they did wrong”.

She added: “Channel 4 should take responsibility and make sure they do not do it again.”

Louise Wallis, policy and campaigns officer for the charity Respond, who supported the protesters, said she was “delighted” at the decision.

She said: “Most crucially, they have accepted that the word ‘retard’ can be offensive, whether or not directed at a person with a learning difficulty.”

Channel 4 said it had “never sought to defend the use of the word retard” and regretted that Jones’ comment was “allowed to go unchecked” in “the heat of the moment during a live programme”. 

26 May 2010

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