Glee, Ricky Gervais and Vinnie Jones – the offensiveness debate gets confusing
21 March 2010
It seems that I am in trouble with that estimable organization Mencap. We have fallen out over the tricky question of offensive language on TV after I had written in the Independent in support of an Ofcom ruling which had ruled in favour of Channel 4 and Celebrity Big Brother.
There had been a row after that unpleasant public figure Vinnie Jones had told Davina McCall that she walked “like a retard”. My argument was that, although the remark was stupid and mildly offensive, it is a dangerous development when more and more words of which people disapprove are banned from broadcast. Controlling language is not far from controlling thought.
Censorship – particularly self-censorship – on the grounds of what some viewers will find offensive is subjective and political.
Mencap disagreed, and wrote me the following email (reproduced with permission):
My colleagues and I were interested to read your comment piece,
“Stand up for the right to cause offence” in The Independent on
Friday 12 March. There are a few things we think you should be aware of
and might be interested to know.
Our intention was never to launch a personal attack on Vinnie Jones,
or, for that matter, Davina McCall – we did not “report” Vinnie to
Ofcom. We have been in communication with both Vinnie and Davina who
have expressed their regret about their use of the word and understand
its negative impact. In fact, Davina has posted an official statement of
apology on her website today (16 March) please see
www.officialdavina.com ( http://www.officialdavina.com/ )
The real issue has been Ofcom’s decision not to challenge Channel 4 for
allowing the word to be broadcast and demanding an on-air apology. Ofcom
cited various reasons for their decision including “while we
acknowledge the reasons this caused offence, we are mindful the use of
the word in this case was not directed at someone with a physical or
mental disability…” and “we consider that this content, although
clearly offensive to you, could be justified by the context”. However,
Mencap’s poll of the public (including Channel 4 viewers) found that 3
out of 5 people considered the word to be offensive. A broadcast apology
We have also been in contact with Channel 4 and their Editorial Manager
for disability, Alison Walsh. Following an invitation from us, Alison
has agreed to meet with people with a learning disability to understand
why they found this word “hurtful and disgusting”.
Sadly, for too many people with a learning disability, the word
‘retard’ has a significance that goes far beyond the harmless
joke many consider it to be. In the tragic case of David Askew last
week, we saw how verbal abuse left an innocent man living in fear for
many years. In cases such as this, the fear often extends beyond the
victim to the wider community. For people with a learning disability, it
can be particularly debilitating, making them less willing to go out and
leaving them feeling at risk in their own home.
For Mencap, and the 1.5 million people with a learning disability we
represent, our work in this area is not about issuing an
“obligatory” personal response but challenging stereotypes and
misconceptions. We all need to understand the negative impact that
language like this has on the lives of people with a learning
disability. If we fail to challenge and question negative
representation, particularly in the media, then we fail in our duty of
care for people with a learning disability.
I would be very happy to arrange a meeting for you with colleagues,
including people with a learning disability, so we can further discuss
these issues. Please let me know if you would like to do this and when
might be convenient for you.
With kind regards,
Media & marketing manager
Thank you for taking the trouble to put the Mencap view.
As it happens, I would have had no problems with a personal attack from Mencap on Vinnie Jones – it was an idiotic remark form a rather nasty man. And, of course, he would apologise. He may be many things, but he’s not a fool.
The problem is not whether it was an ill thought-out, slightly bigoted remark – obviously it was – but whether Channel 4 was right to let it go out on air. My view is that Ofcom was absolutely right: once one starts insisting that any kind of ill thought-out, mildly bigoted remark be censored, our society in on a very slippery slope indeed. There are writers all over the world who are in prison for using language that their government or society deems inappropriate.
In a free society, it is essential that good-hearted, sincere people like you do not control what can be said in public. We need to be able to hear the unpalatable and the unattractive as well as the virtuous.
An example. On the latest episode of the American series Glee, the word ‘spaz’ was used and there was a joke about epilepsy. Has Mencap been in touch with Ofcom about that? If so, how has it dealt with the awkward fact the entire episode was about deafness and disablement, presenting them in a sympathetic and and empowering way? I ask this in a genuine spirit of enquiry. Do you ban the whole episode of Glee – indeed the whole series, because it is full of these edgy, interesting, dramatically ambiguous moments? Do you bleep it, thereby drawing attention to what was a passing reference?
Or do you, as you probably have, decide that the show was written and directed by people with the right attitudes and can therefore be quietly accepted? I’m sure you see the problem.
When campaigner Nicky Clark, who also objected to the programme, contacted me, I referred her to my email to Mencap.
Her response to the question of Glee was that “drama is different entirely different” because “there context is a much wider issue”.
This argument confirms all my worries about this type of campaign. Nicky Clark is saying that a remark in a reality show by an oafish ex-footballer should not be broadcast. On the other hand, a scripted joke, made by an attractive actor in a programme aimed at a young audience, is just fine. I genuinely don’t understand the logic here.
Where does that leave, say, Ricky Gervais who has told jokes about the disabled and who recently suggested that “useless people” should be sterilised? Does that context make it acceptable? In that case, should the call to ban certain words exclude drama, comedy and anything said in an ironic tone of voice?
The case seems to be that Ricky and the writers of Glee are OK because they are nice, liberal people. Vinnie Jones, on the other hand, is not.
Policing language is a slippery dangerous slope.