Leading article: Oh Brother, where art thou?

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The Independent Online

We are all ashamed now. This newspaper is certainly ashamed that Britain is a country in which the issues raised by an exploitative television show should so dominate the national conversation. However, as you will see from our coverage, it is a conversation in which The Independent on Sunday enthusiastically takes part.

Despite the fact that Big Brother is a manipulated, ratings-chasing programme; despite the fact that putting a well-mannered Indian actress in a human zoo with ill-disciplined young Brits is a crass idea; despite all that, the programme and the resulting furore do matter because they are about something important.

Of course, racism is abhorrent, and to the extent that Jade Goody, Jo O'Meara and Danielle Lloyd were guilty of it they should be condemned. But part of what was interesting about the programme was the debate about how much of the interpersonal conflict was racist and how much was "just" bullying; and if there was racism, how much of it was conscious. Furthermore, of course, to the extent that the programme makers set out deliberately to foster racist and bullying behaviour, they should be condemned. Donating the profits from Friday night's phone voting to an undisclosed charity is surely the minimum required from Endemol, the production company that makes Big Brother, to avert a public relations problem. It is hardly a complete and considered fulfilment of the company's social obligations.

Yet there is something hypocritical, or at least incomplete, about the liberal handwringing about the mirror held up by the programme to the racism that lurks so near the surface of the nation. Millions of people watch the programme, and many of them felt strongly enough to vote to evict Ms Goody. It was car-crash entertainment. But most people, if they are honest, will have enjoyed the thrill of glee and prurience, even while they expressed their genuine sense of shock and revulsion.

A lot of people watch Big Brother not because it is heavily edited but because, despite being heavily edited, it is compellingly naturalistic. As Tim Lott points out on page 36, "the inhabitants of the house are incapable of remaining aware in any effective sense that there are cameras trained on them all the time". The result is intensely revealing of individual and social character.

What has been revealed this series is nothing so simple as racism alone. What is really striking is the vast distance between the culture of Shilpa Shetty and that of her housemates. Her assumptions of deference, courtesy and restraint clash horribly with those held by the products of a nation that once presumed to extend its values to the Indian subcontinent. What was really offensive about the conduct of Ms Goody and her cohort was their swearing, aggression and sheer lack of civility.

Yet the beginnings of a backlash against the backlash are already detectable. Ms Goody has already demonstrated that, although she may be ignorant, she is not stupid and not totally without the chance of redemption. By so quickly realising how bad her behaviour had appeared and indeed had been - "I disgust myself" - she sketched out a possible ending to the traditional learning-from-mistakes fairytale. It may not be all that long before her branded goods are back on the shelves.

More profound, perhaps, was the mirror held up by the controversy about the programme to the attitudes of some sections of liberal opinion. As Mr Lott observes, much of the fury about racism is a form of displacement activity. It may be a way in which liberals can "unload our hatred and unease with ourselves on to a more acceptable 'out' group - in this case, the white working class with its lack of education, money, taste and power".

So let us be clear about why, precisely, we should be ashamed. It is embarrassing, perhaps, that it takes a programme so designed to provoke controversy to launch a national discussion about such important issues. But two things are really shaming. First, the hurtful rudeness of Ms Goody and others towards someone from a different background undoubtedly shames us all. But second, the way in which Ms Goody has been trashed with an almost equal lack of restraint by parts of the press and by politicians is more about the self-loathing of the British than it is a fair assessment of her failings.