Tim Lott: The witches of Endemol

How easy it is to scorn the the bullying of Shilpa Shetty by 'Celebrity Big Brother' housemates Jade Goody, Jo O'Meara and Danielle Lloyd. And how right: it was vulgar, bitchy, degrading - and also gripping television. But argues Tim Lott ,the shame we feel should be tempered by a reality check

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There is no doubt that the spat between the Bollywood movie star Shilpa Shetty and the three white witches of the Big Brother house - Jade Goody, Jo O'Meara and Danielle Lloyd - was more than simply compulsive television. It also shone a baleful light on our national character.

However, what has actually been revealed by that light shifts shape, according to where you stand. What you see depends on what you expect to see. The real drama takes place in the private theatre of your own prejudices. Those given to misogyny could find succour in the bitchery and vindictiveness of the Goody, O'Meara and Lloyd coven, a cruelty absent among the bemused and amiable men.

Those who are racially bigoted will have read prejudice into the three women's behaviour and enjoyed some kind of affirmation by proxy.

Liberals who are temperamentally inclined to see racism everywhere - except in themselves - will have enjoyed the spat in a different way, with their own beliefs about the pernicious nature of post-imperial culture being satisfyingly reinforced. Middle-class readers of the Daily Mail and The Guardian alike could take satisfaction from sneering at the vulgarity of their social inferiors.

Liberal post-feminists, on the other hand, are liable to be caught in two minds, since the heroine is an unreconstructed, old fashioned "woman"; feminine, flirtatious, and coy about sex, while the villains are sexually liberated, completely upfront and about as far from the traditional model of femininity you could ever expect to find. Goody, O'Meara and Lloyd are the bastard daughters of feminism - and they have turned out to be more like characters from Lord of the Flies than The Golden Notebook.

So what are we to make of all the bombast, political theatre and liberal grandstanding that have coalesced to make the past week one of the most remarkable in reality television, with the leaders of the main political parties all weighing in (or cashing in) with their opinions, effigies of Endemol television producers being burned in India, and the Carphone Warehouse summarily withdrawing its sponsorship? Before addressing that question, it's worth making a defence of Celebrity Big Brother as a dramatic and documentary vehicle, since much of the reaction to the programme has been snooty and dismissive.

CBB is one of the most remarkable, and certainly one of the most compulsive, TV programmes that has ever been aired. It is the paragon of all reality shows, putting into the shade the dreary "Obscurity" Big Brother, the stagy I'm a Celebrity ... and the worn out formula of Wife Swap.

It is compelling because in its way, it is natural and, if far from unmediated then remarkably unselfconscious - or perhaps "real" is a better word. This is because the inhabitants of the house are incapable of remaining aware in any effective sense that there are cameras trained on them all the time. Thus it fulfils one of our oldest and most seductive dreams - to be invisible. We are in the house with participants, enjoying the conflict and tears, but we are protected and invulnerable. For some, this makes it the apotheosis of cheap voyeurism. For others - and I include myself - it is an unforgettable living showcase of human nature.

Although I occasionally find myself ashamed for watching it - as when Jade's mother, Jackiey, was brutally ejected from the house by Big Brother without her shoes or a scrap of dignity, with the deliberate intention of reducing her daughter to tears - I am also aware that it is a brilliantly realised piece of television.

Its moral defence is crystal clear and to me, highly convincing. That is, the fact that every single one of the participants are a) appearing voluntarily b) able to leave the house at any time and c) being paid a large amount of money and d) out to promote themselves and their careers.

However, what we saw last week unquestionably changed some fundamental assumptions about how Britain might imagine itself to be. I, for instance, have been broadly in sympathy with Michael Collins's award-winning book, The Likes of Us in suggesting that the white working class have acted as effective whipping boy for liberal society, the one group you could unashamedly pour scorn and hatred on without fear of censure. Out of the endless tactical transformations of middle-class snobberies, seeking to maintain differentials from an enriched proletariat, the Salt of the Earth had been demoted to the Scum of the Earth.

Collins pointed out that if the intermarriage rates between races were anything to go by, the white working class were a great deal less racist than any other social group. And I have always been of the opinion that there are many admirable things about the WWC - their determination to "speak as they find", their honesty, their lack of hypocrisy, their wit, earthiness and spontaneity. These presumed virtues turned to ashes as I watched O' Meara, Goody and Lloyd turn on Shilpa Shetty. I have instinctively defended white working-class "culture" in my own mind, but now felt ashamed of my own roots and stance. It seemed that I had made the mistake of romanticising my own past.

Whether they were racist or not remains questionable. However, the ignorance and pettiness that emerged from the three witches did seem to be rooted in those characteristics which I had naively taken - in part at least - as cultural virtues. Jade's "honesty" was her excuse for downright obnoxiousness. Their spontaneity was the spontaneity of unthinking cruelty. Their earthiness - fart jokes, endless banging on about sex - was dreary and degrading. And their ignorance was depressing. This monumental dumbness extended to the "fourth witch", Jade's boyfriend, Jack, who it appeared, in a hilarious discussion with Big Brother about why men had nipples, did not know what an embryo was or indeed how to pronounce it.

Along with the bizarre news that the police are now being consulted about possible prosecutions under race laws, it is suggested that the taboo about racism verges on the hysterical. It seems you can call someone - or be - a murderer, racist or paedophile and cause less offence than does even the circumstantial thought crime of racism. But, to ask what is itself a taboo question, is racism really any worse than any other kind of prejudice? If someone mispronounces - even persistently - a name, or suggests that people of the Indian subcontinent eat with their fingers, or confuses them with the Chinese, does it automatically suggest that they would willingly man the gas chambers - or even read the Daily Mail?

This racial sensitivity is partial and ignores the reality that we are all racists to some degree. In fact the only overt and unequivocal racism displayed in the house, more or less unremarked on by the wider world, came from Jermaine Jackson who called the witches "white trash". Clearly racism is considered to be a one-way street.

I think that the passion polite society feels against racism is in fact the suppressed - or rather repressed - awareness that bigotry is an inescapable element of everyone's makeup. This repression and violent passion is analogous to the way Jade Goody became hysterical with rage when brought face to face - by an exasperated Shilpa Shetty - with the obvious fact that the only reason she was famous was because she had the luck to have been chosen to appear on a reality show.

This manifest and incontrovertible truth penetrated to the heart of Jade's self-image, and punctured it, leaving her fizzing around the room as pointless and angry as an over-inflated balloon pricked by the sharpest of points.

As a culture we similarly react with psychological violence when it is suggested that we might be racist - since in fact we all wish to claim the privilege of being liberals, at least to the extent of thinking of ourselves as "good people". And just as "fundamentalist" racism unloads hatred on to an out-group, we, far more subtly, with our fundamentalist anti-racism, unload our hatred and unease with ourselves on to a more acceptable "out" group - in this case, the white working class with their lack of education, money, taste and power. This group have become the new Fifth Column, the chavs under the beds.

Extreme racism is far from being entirely a myth - I received more hate letters about race than any other subject when I wrote a weekly newspaper column - but like the reds-under-the-beds scares of Fifties America, and the Salem witch trials, it as much a product of our fevered imaginations and need for moral (as opposed to racial) purity as it is demonstrable reality. Piety, it should always be remembered, is even more dangerous than open hatred, as tyrants acting in the name of virtue - from Torquemada to Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot - have resoundingly proved time and again. If there is no doubt, however, that the witches' behaviour was ugly - and it was - then the rest of the housemates do not come out covered in honour. Not a single one of them explicitly leapt to Shilpa's defence at any point, most of them fearing to offend the coven, and several of them - the two-faced Cleo Rocos and the anguished H from Steps - determinedly keeping a foot in both camps.

Even the supportive and mature Jermaine and Dirk never dared to challenge the witches openly. It was a spectacle of appeasement and moral cowardice which enabled me to understand more clearly that, racism or no racism, it is mob rule, individual cowardice, and moral passivity that can lead to horrors, and perhaps ultimately Kristallnachts, pogroms and worse.

It is not racism we need to fear so much as the instinct to bully and locate scapegoats, which is partly the instinct of co-opting the idea for the mob of collective and unchallengeable virtue, coupled with the parallel and equally pernicious instinct to keep our heads down in the face of any powerful grouping, however malevolent. As she returns to the real world after her eviction, Jade will be effectively crucified. So, her blood - symbolised by the draining of her promotional income and the penetrating nails of the tabloid condemnation - can give us all the illusion of being clean. And yet she is nothing more than a immature girl with a big mouth. I almost feel sorry for her.

It occurs to me that it would be a stroke of genius at this point for Endemol to open the next episode of Celebrity Big Brother with a song from the brilliant, hip and hilarious West End musical Avenue Q. They could even have the occupants sing along.

I can commend the full lyrics of "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" to anyone as the most penetrating commentary on racial politics of recent years, however, here's the first stanza as a taster:

"Everyone's a little bit racist / Sometimes / Doesn't mean we go / Around committing hate crimes / Look around and you will find / No one's really colour blind / Maybe it's a fact / We all should face / Everyone makes judgments / Based on race."

This, rather than Horst Wessel's Nazi anthem, has been the secret soundtrack to last week's events - as I imagine this week it will be the Passion of St Jade.

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