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Of Chicken Stock Cubes, an International Race Row and British Society Today

The controversy over the Big Brother reality TV show says a lot more about British society today than about the face of racism.

Of Chicken Stock Cubes, an International Race Row and British Society Today

The controversy over the Big Brother reality TV show says a lot more about British society today than about the face of racism.


ho could have predicted that the biggest, most analysed news story in the UK at the start of 2007 would be an international debate over the row between two “reality” TV participants, arguing among other things over who used up the chicken stock cubes? But so it has turned out. Copious quantities of ink were used up in the British press on analysing what happened, how racist or stupid or boorish the Brits are, while other news stories – from 150 dead in Iraq to collusion of senior police in killings in northern Ireland (throughout the 1990s to the early years of this century), or the arrest in the cash-for-peerages scandal of the most senior aide to Blair yet – have all received much less attention.

But this is not just the British media getting its news priorities wrong once again. The Jade-Shilpa Big Brother row has touched a mixture of sensitive nerves in the UK – not only on racism but also on the crassness and aggressiveness of much of British society, while also shining a spotlight on the increasingly degraded output that counts as British TV programming today. And as columnists and edit writers opined at length, the sound of pots calling kettles black could be heard, with the Sun, rushing to denounce Jade Goody (the offending participant in the show) as “a vile, pig-ignorant, racist bully consumed by envy of a woman of superior intelligence, beauty and class”. Perhaps not a bad description, as anyone who tuned in for even a few minutes of Jade’s extraordinary aggressive, drunken-seeming expletives could agree. But from the Sun, hardly a paragon of multicultural tolerance?

One of the Lads

“Was it class or race?” turned out to be one of the big debates of the day in the UK. No one doubted that Jade Goody and Shilpa Shetty were a class or two apart, but while some were sure this was more class than race-hatred, others suggested the British middle classes were turning on their embarrassing lower class fellow Brits to excuse themselves from any possible taint of racism. As letters, and emails poured in, one to the Guardian suggested that the falling-out started when Shilpa could not understand Jade’s pronunciation of “whale” – Jade saying it as something akin to “way-ow” (Shilpa then laughing and repeating the correct pronunciation).

Well that may indeed have surprised the bully Jade Goody. While Britain today is ever more unequal in income and wealth terms and class has certainly not disappeared, no one would dream of correcting pronunciation as “improper” – fine and good if that is an acceptance of all classes and regions in a once over-hierarchical country. But it is not fine at all when it becomes inverted snobbery, where the besteducated middle classes try to imitate or be accepted in the laddish, anti-intellectual culture that Britain has become today. In this new meritocratic Britain where Blair and New Labour spend so long wooing the reactionary, racist, right wing Daily Mail and Sun reading classes, Blair still tries to show he is one of the lads, using the glottal stop with the best of them despite his public (that is private) school education (try saying “water” as “wort-a”, not “worter”, or say “after” with a short “a” as “afta” not “ahf-ter”).

And so no wonder Jade Goody was shocked to find her “Estuary” English mocked, when everyone else is flocking to imitate it. Shilpa Shetty has a posh accent by English standards these days, something above even received BBC English. And a quick viewing of British TV will show anyone that these days received English is not where it’s at, as TV presenters, continuity announcers, politicians, unknown “celebs” and more, queue up to show in their faux dumbeddown accents that they are part of the nonhierarchical masses.

Some commentators denied it was class. For leading Guardian political commentator, Jackie Ashley, it was racist and stupid but not class. Most of all, she argued, it reflected the “bullying atmosphere…and materialist crassness” of contemporary Britain. And she goes on “screaming abuse, the use of aggressive, two-fingered, fourlettered words, and self-righteous hatred of outsiders are not confined to the circus act of a Channel 4 television show. These things are in danger of becoming typical of the modern British at play.”

Unfortunately for the UK today, she is not far wrong – the sensitive nerve hit by the Jade-Shilpa row is a nerve about the state of modern Britain. Cool and confident in today’s Britain is too often to be loud, aggressive and deeply anti-intellectual. Some are in denial on this point, it’s the underclasses to blame. Hence the Archbishop of York weighing in about, “the ugly underbelly of society…only too ready to point the finger at the foreigner.” But what if it is the exposed and ugly real face of too much of the UK? Ashley concludes, “We are not a pretty sight, no prettier than we were by the end of the 80s and in some ways uglier. As things stand, Thatcher is going to have the last laugh.”

Racism in the UK today is certainly not confined to a loud-mouthed faux celebrity, famous only for being on a fake-reality TV programme – foreign is surely threatening in a UK where learning languages is ever more in decline, where foreign travel does not mean learning anything about foreign cultures, where Islamic fundamentalism and the “war on terror” has led to those who should know better wanting to tell women whether they can or can’t wear a veil, and where a British home office report says visitors from South Africa are 10 times more likely to be stopped if they are non-white but then goes on to claim that this is for socio-economic reasons.

Dumbing Down TV

All these debates from one deeply dull, pointless and shallow TV programme. But while the Jade-Shilpa episode has inadvertently shown a very undesirable face of modern Britain, it also shines a light on the dumbing down of UK’s once envied TV culture. Follow what is on the main British TV channels each evening for a

Economic and Political Weekly February 3, 2007

week and you will find a diet of soaps (down the pub, at the hospital, at the police station) or endless “reality” or “ordinary, real people” shows from wife-swap, to a fake global treasure-hunt (the world’s our playground) to doing-up or moving house, buying a million-pound house in Spain, eating better, dieting, pretending to be a dancer, a singer, or a safari guide in Africa and fool the professionals, look 10 years younger (with a lot of help and only if you first look 15 years older than you really are), run a fake rape trial with real lawyers, phone-in with your verdict. And when occasionally, among this mind-destroying pap, a documentary on a serious political issue appears, you can be sure it will be fronted by a grinning “Boys-Own” presenter in suitably dumbed down accent doing lots of laddish asides straight to the camera to assure the viewer that there will be nothing difficult or complex or too intellectually demanding.

As the torrent of commentary subsided, most concluded that Jade’s career was now on the way out, Shilpa’s surely on the way up. If such was the normal pay back for racist bullying, it might die out rather rapidly. But, despite the torrent of soulsearching and self-criticism, the wider issue of whether the UK will seriously face up to and do anything about the crass country it has become is quite another question.



Economic and Political Weekly February 3, 2007

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