Discrimination: Pushing boundaries and crossing the line

Today’s Double Take on 5 Live talked about some comments the producer of QI had made about comedy on television becoming “bland”.

To illustrate the point, the presenters suggested that potential or actual reactions to Miranda’s recent “chocolate lollipop penis” or Frankie Boyle’s comments about Katie Price’s disabled son demonstrated it was hard to push the boundaries of comedy on television.

Putting these two examples in the same sentence is ridiculous. One is sexual humour. The other is plain discrimination, and as such is in contravention of equality law.

What makes this discussion worse is the fact it followed a news bulletin item in which Trevor Brooking called for more direct action to be taken in countries where football fans are not dealt with appropriately for making racist comments towards players.

The conclusion I was left to drawn is that it’s crossing the line when well-known participants in a high-profile activity are targets of racist abuse, but that it’s pushing the boundary when the disabled child of a well-known celebrity is the target of discriminatory abuse.



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Man of letters & numbers; also occasionally of action. Husband to NTW. Dad of three. Friendly geek.

2 thoughts on “Discrimination: Pushing boundaries and crossing the line”

  1. I dunno, it’s a tricky one this. There’s no doubt that Boyle’s joke is vile, and if said in any other context, would be utterly reprehensible. However, the context it was made in was a performance and I wonder if that does make a difference.

    [Ought to point out now that I am typing out loud here, and these thoughts aren’t necessary what my definite opinions are!]

    People who go to watch a Frankie Boyle show, or watch his telly programmes, know what they are getting, in fact that anticipate it. I dare say that many comedians say things they don’t mean to get a laugh, or at least some kind of reaction. People watch Boyle because he is vile, he goes beyond the realms of the acceptable – it’s a performance, a role he is playing.

    Does that justify him saying it? I don’t know, to be honest. But I’d rather that mistakes were made in allowing people to say things they shouldn’t than being too trigger happy in restricting what people can say when performing.

  2. Excellent article here is a reply re disablism on Top Gear. It says everything you need to know abut broadcasters attitudes to disablism. I suspect it’s the replies they used to give on racism when years ago that was deemed acceptable too. It seems strange that some are so enlightened and still so ignorant eh?

    “I’m genuinely sorry to be writing this email almost a year after you first got in touch. Due to a technical fault, which I struggle to understand myself, the complaints department only recently discovered your follow-up email. I hope the fact I’m now replying assures you that there was no deliberate attempt to ignore your complaint but I understand if that seems like scant consolation.

    Anyhow, the unfortunate circumstances aside, I’m happy to have the opportunity to respond to your concerns more fully. As I think the initial response suggested, I have no hesitation in offering my personal apologies to anyone who believes something in the show ridicules the disabled. We do think carefully about what goes into our scripts but if in hindsight we think we get something wrong we’ll admit so. You identified one such occasion in your email – in relation to the “especial needs” comment – where I think the intended target of the comment wasn’t as clear as it should have been. On that occasion we apologised, pulled the episode from the iPlayer shortly afterwards and re-edited the show for any future repeats.

    Whilst you may not agree, I do think the issues you raise in relation to the 18 July episode are slightly different to that mentioned above. To clarify, the ‘sketch’ you refer to wasn’t about laughing at a blind man crashing a car. Jeremy kicked off the item by explaining that a group of American students had developed a car which could apparently be driven by blind people. It’s an unusual concept and therefore just the sort of story that we’re likely to feature in the news slot. I won’t pretend there weren’t a few jokey comments about the whole idea but none of them are cruel or mocking in tone and in fact Jeremy made a point of saying how important it is that we (as a society) do what we can to makes things accessible for the disabled.

    That led us on to Volvo’s attempts at implementing a similar system which would prevent drivers from crashing were they to, say, fall asleep at the wheel. We showed genuine footage of Volvo demonstrating the system in action, although not particularly well as it turns out since the car crashed. There’s no suggestion that the driver is blind and I’d be surprised if he was. We were simply laughing at Volvo showing off a system which doesn’t seem to work.

    As an aside, it may interest you to know that a blind man actually wrote to us a few years ago, claiming he could beat Richard Whiteley’s time around the Top Gear track. We duly put it to the test and, with Jeremy’s assistance, he managed to beat not just Richard but Terry Wogan as well.

    Turning to Jeremy’s use of the word ‘retard’, I do think the meaning which can be inferred from its use depends on who it’s directed at. The same word applied to a disabled person would, rightly, never make it in to the show – nor would we have any desire to use it in such a way. But when Jeremy applies it to Richard, I think it’s simply seen as a general insult. The audience know the dynamic between the two presenters and they know Jeremy’s calling Richard an idiot. There is no connotation of disability because Richard is not disabled and therefore it doesn’t serve to promote negative and outdated views on the disabled.

    None of this is intended to suggest that you were wrong to be offended – the fact is you clearly were offended and I’m genuinely sorry for that. I just want to show that we’re not casual in our approach to these things. We try to ensure that the target of particular jokes or comments is clear. We don’t always get it right but thankfully I think such occasions are pretty rare.

    However, if you believe a serious and specific breach of the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines has occurred here, and you wish to pursue this complaint further, you can contact the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit within 20 working days and they will carry out an independent investigation. “

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