The head of Channel 4 has apologised after it emerged an art director requested pictures of “a very young girl pretending to be a bride” and of a “dirty kiss... with tongue” for an advertising campaign for Big Fat Gypsy Weddings.
Chief executive David Abraham insisted today that the demands, contained in an email to a photographer, in no way reflected the channel's approach to the programme or its marketing campaign - which has since been censured by the advertising watchdog for being irresponsible and offensive.
The email, from art director Pablo Gonzalez de la Pena to photographer Elisabeth Blanchet, emerged last week after the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) ruled that two adverts for the show could encourage prejudicial views of the gypsy and traveller community.
The ads featured the words "Bigger. Fatter. Gypsier" over an image of, in one, a young boy, and in the other, teenagers wearing low-cut bra tops. The ASA said that the images presented children in a sexualised way.
Channel 4 has already apologised for the offence caused to sections of the gypsy community but the disclosure of Mr de la Pena's email further fuelled concerns about Channel 4's approach to the programme.
In it, he suggests to the photographer a picture featuring "a dirty kiss between a couple, with tongue", "a toilet, ideally an outdoor one (where) we can see the tail of a wedding dress coming out from it, like a bride has just used", and "a very young girl pretending to be a bride".
Mr Abraham distanced himself from the email today, telling MPs on the Culture, Media and Sport select committee: "It absolutely and categorically did not reflect the approach of Channel 4. The individual has apologised and we have formally apologised as well."
He said the email was "unacceptable" and "did not inform the overall approach" to the programme. He described Mr de la Pena as a "relatively junior member of staff" whose email had been "ill-advised".
"He has been formally reprimanded and put on a training programme," Mr Abraham said.
The Channel 4 boss defended the show and stressed that the ASA had originally approved the advertising campaign - which drew 372 complaints - earlier this year. Its recent ruling represented a partial reversal of the earlier decision, in the light of complaints from the Irish Traveller Movement in Britain (ITMB).
Mr Abraham said the programme, which attracted 9 million viewers, fulfilled Channel 4's remit of "shining a light on marginal communities" and of "informing in new ways", adding that there were "many positive things" about the show.
"We do know that the sections of the community that have collaborated with the programme and the advertising are very comfortable with the work we have done," he said.
"We have categorically apologised if we have offended parts of the community. But the fact remains we are proud of the programme for shining a light on the community overall.
"Our research shows that it has enlightened the public about a community they may have known little about and indeed may have had prejudices about."