People in glass houses…

The abuse of Shilpa Shetty may have caused an outcry, but it reflects tensions in our wider socierty. It’s time we all did some navel-gazing, marketers included, says Tony Lit.

Millions of viewers tuned in to Friday’s Celebrity Big Brother after what proved to be the most controversial week reality TV has ever experienced. It made for very uncomfortable viewing, but did not stop over 8 million people tuning in.

Jade Goody and Shilpa Shetty are literally worlds apart. After a week of abuse that introduced dynamics into the house that Shilpa has probably never experienced before, her tolerance in the face of foul language and behaviour went far beyond the call of duty. She has remained incredibly dignified in her approach to those who have misunderstood her character and personal ethics. Her treatment by fellow housemates reflects a split between ignorance and tolerance that has clearly been bubbling under the surface of our nation for some time.

The fact it is debatable in our society whether the behaviour towards Shilpa can be classed as racism displays this ignorance. It is also evident in the act of nominating Shilpa for eviction and in the shocking fact that nobody mentioned the word racism within the house until Big Brother stepped in and made people realise their own prejudices.

In fact, the anger among the Asian population is more about housemates’ lack of respect shown to Shilpa. The disgusting and, at times aggressive, behaviour towards such a respected woman has sparked additional insult among Asians, leaving alone for a moment any racist comments.

Channel 4 has always courted controversy because, as we all know, as a result of it audience figures rise. Working in the industry that I do, I know the importance of training and judgement when choosing people to represent my company. I would never choose to set up a clash between presenter and guest during one of my shows in order to boost audiences – it’s exploitation for capital gain and something I am totally against. It is also unfair on those involved, particularly if they are uninformed.

Whether or not Endemol predicted the worldwide debate that would ensue when it decided to put Jade and Shilpa in the house, we will never know. Their much-mentioned team of psychologists, however, would have been foolish not to predict the culture clash. Indeed, previous Celebrity Big Brothers have thrived off a clash of personalities. But is it time to question the ethics behind such manipulative casting?The underlining difference between Big Brother and its celebrity sibling is that in the former it involves normal people who don’t really have to meet any standards of behaviour. The celebrity version, by contrast, features those we choose to celebrate as role models. Therefore, we should be able to expect a higher standard of moral conduct from those in the celebrity house, as many use their idols’ behaviour as a script for their own.

It was unfair to place Jade in the celebrity house: she does not possess the experience, knowledge or cultural tolerance to adhere to the moral duty of a celebrity role model: her claim to fame is ignorance.

C4’s ethics are questionable, but the end has appeared to justify the means. It is important to tackle issues such as racism in a frank and honest way rather than tiptoe around them. Politicians, celebrities and the public have been forced into action. Never have I had the opportunity to speak to so many people from different walks of life about their views on racism. Consequently, it is important to remember it does not take a racist to display racist behaviour. Furthermore, it highlights the care we need to take when we choose who we want to hold up to the world to represent our country.

As for the sponsor, if its marketers had been up to scratch they would have been able to predict such a showdown. So why would any responsible company want to associate its brand with something so risky? Because when it all kicks off, it can very publicly cancel the sponsorship and make a poignant statement confirming its anti-racist policy. In this case, the company not only got to do that to the British public, but across the globe – and that is what successful marketing is all about…But as the Asian population in the UK grows and their influence on the economy increases, brands and services will no longer be able to ignore this cultural diversity, because doing so will make them vulnerable to more savvy competitors, and miss opportunities to increase business.

• Tony Lit is managing director of Sunrise Radio

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