Friday, 28 August 2009

OFCOM - who leads the blind?

A while back, a TV comedy show called Moving Wallpaper, broadcast in the Friday night 'coming-in-pissed-from-the-pub' slot, had an episode with a transsexual character in it. This was an excuse for lots of Tranny Gags, which is just what people who've come in pissed from the pub like to watch, presumably. It was about as funny and subtle as Bernard Manning on Mogadon, and an uncannily familiar portrayal of workplace bigotry for those who've experienced it. At the time I characterised it as 'dumbfuckery', before reaching for the Basildon Bond and firing off a complaint to OFCOM.

Lots of other people complained too.

OFCOM grunted a bit, woke up briefly from their post-lunch snooze, and said petulantly that they could see nothing wrong with the programme.

Then they went back to sleep in front of the telly.

A few resolute types (thank you, Jo!) appealed against the judgement.

And the review of the judgement, written by Trevor Barnes, Senior Standards Manager at OFCOM, has now come out.

It's nothing much more than a rubber stamp for the previous judgement; there are some amusing bits, though.

I do not agree that the harassment or bullying of transsexual people is regarded by society as acceptable. Of course, parts of society may regrettably still have discriminatory attitudes. And discrimination still undoubtedly exists: one appellant forwarded a research paper detailing transgender and transsexual people's experience of inequality and discrimination between 1998 and 2005. But I note that employment legislation has been tightened in recent years to help protect transsexual and transgender people and now places an obligation on all employers for example to ensure that there is no bullying or harassment of, or discrimination against, employees on the basis of their sexuality or gender. There is no evidence in my view that the bullying or harassment of transgender people is regarded as acceptable.

.... thus speaks white, middle-class, Cambridge-eddicated, cisgendered Trevor Barnes, and let's face it, he should know. Much better, obviously, than the people who've seen discrimination in action, and for whom the Moving Wallpaper episode was little more than a catalogue of all-too-familiar bigotries, masquerading as humour. While he accepts that there has been naughtiness in the past, apparently it's no longer possible because the paperwork has been tightened up. I understand that Mr Barnes is a lawyer, and perhaps a respecter of What Is Written. It is possible that he even believes what he says there, though it is hardly flattering to his intelligence to think that he might. I doubt that he's had much experience of the gulf between what it says on pieces of paper, and how things are between people in the workplace.
Some of the appellants suggested that the programme would have been in breach of the Code if for example the Georgina character had not been a transsexual person but a membere if an ethnic minority or a Muslim, and the offensive remarks had been racist or otherwise discriminatory - and that therefore the programme also contravened the Code in the current case because the offensive language towards and treatment of Georgina was equally unacceptable. Whether a particular programme does or does not comply with the Code would of course depend on all the individual circumstances. But I do not agree that this argument is valid. In the context of a satirical comedy it could theoretically have been possible to have had a different type of character subjected to discriminatory treatment by Jonathan Pope and his colleagues and for this not to have breached the Code. The broadcaster however exercised its editorial freedom by choosing not to do so.
It would indeed be a bold television programme that introduced a Muslim character to be the butt of racist jokes and defended this treatment as satirical. And perhaps Moving Wallpaper are bold folk, ready to satirise bigotry wherever it rears its ugly head, etc etc, but sadly missing the opportunity to show how truly bold they are by exercising their editorial freedom by choosing not to do so.

And then again, maybe they're just tawdry populists out for a cheap laugh. It's much safer to Mock The Tranny, after all.


  1. Just another quango empire....

    OfCom is far too cosy with all the TV companies to ever rock the boat, Dru.

    Think of all the media junkets and speaking opportunities Trevor Barnes would miss out on, if OfCom actually did their fecking job?


  2. Well yes, indeed Dru. I'll add one thing...the programme was actually on at 9pm. Unless we're talking the 'Coming-in-pissed-from-the-pub-having-drunk-a-lot-very-early-after-taking-the-van-back-to-the-depot' Brigade, it can't even hide behind the excuse of seeking to appeal to a bunch of pissed young males arriving home late, curry-in-hand. This was mainstream 'comedy'.

    Trevor Barnes is, I understand, an ex BBC Producer. His response was 9 pages of misunderstanding, denial, fingers in ears and insult. It was truly classic...and not one of the points made by any of the appellants was given any credence at all. Not one (my appeal alone was co-signed by 30 others, ran to 11 pages and included 13 pages of supporting documentary evidence, including a second by second analysis of the programme which identified 54 seperate abusive/offensive remarks, on average one every 22 seconds.)

    This is not over yet. My appeal has now moved up to The Director of Standards. My MP has also offered his support.

    This little branch of the Awkward Squad is not ready to go away yet.

  3. I recently read 'Becoming Drusilla', Dru, and admired your behaviour on the P&O ferry. Your friend Richard speculated on whether self-preservation would have been a safer choice, but you faced the lion's den. And why not? You enjoyed the engine room as a place to work in, and there was always an outside chance that the rest of the crew would breathe a collective sigh of relief, and say 'Thank God someone's being honest here, come on, let's all do the same', and instantly there would be a shipboard sisterhood from the master downwards that top management in P&O would proudly endorse and in fact work into their TV ads as a selling point to the travelling public; meanwhile, forsaking the booze and the drugs, the crew would wear Prada.

    Well, maybe one day.

    I am personally haunted by the inevitability of devastating abuse and mockery. It hasn't happened yet, but it must come one day soon. And I won't have a brilliant counter-stroke ready, I'll just be destroyed. And why should I (or anyone else) have to live in such apprehension?

  4. "...I note that employment legislation has been tightened in recent years to help protect transsexual and transgender people and now places an obligation on all employers for example to ensure that there is no bullying or harassment of, or discrimination against, employees on the basis of their sexuality or gender." Well, that's all right then. After all, there have been laws against murder and rape for years and years, and we all know that because those laws exist we can sleep safer in our beds because our society no longer has rapists or murderers at large.

    While I faced nowhere near the same pressures as you, Dru, I also faced illegal discrimination at work before I transitioned, and lost my job before I transitioned, despite me pointing out how illegal it was - and the stress, even knowing I had a cast iron case and would walk all over them at tribunal, was immense. Just because policies and legislation exist, it doesn't mean that they are always exercised.

  5. Lucy, that's a very honest post there.

    Don't underestimate the sudden strength you will find, should you need it. As we become ourselves we find resources we never imagined we had. We can't know we've got this strength until we need it. But it's there...count on it.

    (PS Glad you enjoyed a certain art exhibition...I was there today!)

  6. Yes, Chrissie, that's the impression I get. Like the PCC, with whom I've also had dealings. Just got to keep worrying at them...

    ...though I was a bit tied up with other things when the time came to appeal, so thank you again Jo. Railing against injustice in cyberspace is not as productive as taking the fight to the enemy.

    As Jo says, you never know what will happen, Lucy. I felt that it was my own truth being attacked, and there was nowhere to go and nothing to do but fight it. I hope that if anything does happen to you, you find the strength and resolve that comes from knowing you are fighting the good fight.

    ...I feel that the sole purpose of the paperwork is to absolve company management of responsibility should anything happen further down the line, HB. Though I suppose it is better to have proper policies in place than none at all; P&O were chastised for their uselessness in several departments, not least of which was an anti-bullying policy which said "horseplay will not be permitted". And.... that was it.

  7. Very depressed about this decision. And yes, the passage you point out is rather akin to saying "There are race relations laws, therefore we need not address racism on television." In a bizarre twist of logic, the fact that the Ofcom code contains the obligation to address transphobia becomes part of their justification for not doing so! Neat, huh? If you like Catch-22s.

  8. There was something else on tv recently of pretty much the same ilk. Knowing about this Moving Wallpaper business, I deliberately imagined what it would be like watching it with you. I almost crawled under the sofa in embarrassment. Perhaps this is a test Mr Barnes would like to apply in future. Though he does seem a bit lacking in imagination.

  9. I get the feeling that the test Mr Barnes applies is "would I be happy to let my wife or servants watch this?" ....

  10. Ugh.. That was about the blandest cop-out legalese a piece of paper was ever abused by. Terrible.

    Seriously, they so would not do that to Muslims! You're right on that..