Big Brother cleared over homophobic language

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A report by broadcasting watchdog Ofcom has cleared Channel 4 over the repeated use of the word ‘poof’ by a contestant on reality TV show Big Brother.

There is no indication that housemate Laura Williams intended to be homophobic when using the word, said Ofcom, who ruled the show did not breach any guidelines when it showed contestants using offensive language.

Channel 4 was accused of double standards after it treated gay slurs less seriously than racist terminology on Big Brother.

Ofcom’s report accepted that as the use of the word ‘poof’ was less offensive than the use of the word ‘nigger’ by another housemate as that comment was addressed at a black person, whereas ‘poof’ was not directed at a gay person.

“In our view, it is not possible or appropriate at present to establish definitively the degree of offence use of the word ‘poof’ can cause in all contexts,” said Ofcom.

“For example, it is clear that within the gay community itself, the word ‘poof’ can be used in a playful, affectionate or self-deprecating way.

“This is evidenced, for example, by the use of the word in Friday Night with Jonathan Ross (BBC1), with its resident band Four Poofs and a Piano.

“In Ofcom’s view, there is insufficient or no evidence to suggest that Laura Wiliams used the word complained of in a denigratory way.”

Ofcom drew attention to the on-air warning Ms Williams was given about homophobic language and that Big Brother viewers expect to see housemates “warts and all.”

The watchdog said they were aware of concerns about the use of homophobic language in any context, “especially where it might be emulated by younger viewers, with the consequent risk of bullying at school.

“Broadcasters are therefore reminded to exercise care about the frequency with, and context in, which the word is broadcast.”

Channel 4 had defended itself against accusations that it treats gay slurs less seriously than racist language on Big Brother.

After the racism row involving Indian actress Shilpa Shetty in Celebrity Big Brother in January, Channel 4 paid close attention to racist language on the show.

Nine days into the last series of Big Brother contestant Emily was removed from the house in the early hours of the morning after using the word “nigger.”

At the time Angela Jain, who heads the Big Brother commissioning team at Channel 4, said:

“The word nigger is clearly racially offensive and there was no justification for its use.

“We have removed Emily from the house to once again make it clear to all housemates and the viewers at home that such behaviour won’t be tolerated.”

In a later episode of the show, contestant Laura used the term ‘poof’ in a derogatory way against fellow housemate Liam.

It was used in the context of Liam not being sufficiently masculine.

It took several days and another use of the word ‘poof’ before any action was taken – Ms Williams was given a vague warning about rules surrounding homophobic language and was not punished in any way.

Reader Simon Brunger told at the time:

“The use and broadcast of the word ‘poof’ perpetuates the idea that homophobic language is acceptable.

“In playgrounds and workplaces around the country, many gay men, women and children have to sit by and listen to these kinds of words being bandied around, and for them to be entirely acceptable.”

Despite the claims in the Ofcom report that Channel 4 acted correctly at all times, in July the head of Legal and Compliance at the station told a gay audience that they made mistakes.

Jan Tomalin was speaking at an event organised by the channel entitled “Homosexuality and the Media: How far have we come?”

She frankly admitted when asked about the incident: “we got it wrong.”

Ms Tomalin said:

“I think it was a mistake, I think it was wrong to show the sequence that was shown.

“It involved Laura, who is a straight woman, saying to a straight man … calling him a poof in a light-hearted way and those who saw it felt that it was not directed at Gerry, the gay housemate.

“It was not used in a derogatory sense and they felt that within that context it was appropriate for broadcast.

“I do not think it was – plainly it wasn’t.

“We responded to the complaints that were received and we instructed and agreed with (Big Brother production company) Endemol if there was a repetition of her using the word at all, she would be called straight away into the diary room and be told that word is not acceptable.

“And that this would be broadcast as a clear message to viewers – that did happen.

“We got it wrong, we recognise that and we responded to public opinion and we dealt with it.”