Who would have thought a reality television show would do anyone any favours - beyond those who benefit financially? But this is what has happened with Channel 4's Celebrity Big Brother. The exchanges between Jade Goody and Shilpa Shetty became the talk of the week. They dominated radio phone-ins and television talk shows. They lost the programme, and Ms Goody, major commercial sponsors. And they threatened a diplomatic row between Britain and India, just as the Chancellor was over there trying to burnish his foreign policy credentials.
But they also did something else more interesting and, in the national context, no less significant. They triggered a spontaneous national discussion about race and racism that was in many ways long overdue.
Ms Goody's conduct, and that of the former Miss England, Danielle Lloyd, towards Ms Shetty, was thoroughly reprehensible - let's make no bones about it. But the expectation of bad behaviour was no doubt why these individuals were selected to take part. Channel 4 must accept considerably more blame than it has. The tensions that would be generated by a confrontation between the low-life Ms Goody and a pampered Indian megastar of singular beauty were all too predictable. When the fireworks duly exploded, Channel 4 produced a mealy-mouthed response, and seemed reluctant to take any responsibility. This reflects poorly on a public service broadcaster that was set up to reflect the interests of minority audiences.
So what made the impassioned discussion spawned by this Celebrity Big Brother such a significant, even beneficial and perhaps cathartic exercise? The first answer lies in the public response from viewers. By yesterday more than 38,000 people had registered their complaints with the media watchdog, Ofcom - far and away a record number of objections to a single programme. That so many viewers felt so strongly that they took the trouble to complain says a great deal about how attitudes to race have changed over a generation - and changed overwhelmingly for the better. There is now a degree of sensitivity in Britain towards race that makes the sort of attitudes personified by Ms Goody quite simply unacceptable.
And this brings us to the second, far less edifying point, which is that Ms Goody and Ms Lloyd rose so predictably, and so ignobly, to the bait set before them. We recognise that the hostility directed towards Ms Shetty was not entirely about race. As a highly cultivated and wealthy young woman, she exemplified everything her housemates were not. There was a strong element of class here, as well as a level of ignorance about other countries and cultures that puts our schools to shame.
The truth, though, is that Jade and her housemates brought us up with a start. They exposed the continued existence of a bigoted mindset that many had hoped, perhaps naively, was dying out. The fact that racist language and overt prejudice have mostly been purged from public discourse may even have lulled us into a false complacency about how ingrained racist attitudes remain.
While Britain is justifiably admired for its climate of comparative racial tolerance, members of ethnic minorities are still much more likely to be excluded from school, without a job or stopped by the police. Prejudice persists in private, and not so private, conversations across the social spectrum, in jokes, snide remarks and negative assumptions.
Those who protested to Ofcom this week show the progress we have made. The unbridled exchanges in the Big Brother House provide a salutary reminder of how far we still have to go.Reuse content