BBC has forgotten that mentally ill people are its licence fee payers
By Iqbal Tamimi
Stand-up comedian Jack Whitehall, who hosted the BBC1 comedy show ‘Live at Apollo’ on 21 January 2012, apparently thinks it is funny to make fun of people suffering mental problems. He made a joke about starting a relationship with a woman, saying ‘at first I thought she must be sexy and interesting’ because she told him that she was ‘bi’. Then he made a gesture with his hand indicating she was ‘crazy’ while saying that he found out that she meant that she has bipolar disorder – a form of depression.
No one should make jokes about sick people; it is not a matter for laughter that some people are suffering and they can’t do anything about their illnesses. It is bad enough what those people go through. According to medical journals 25% of patients who suffer bipolar disorder have attempted suicide. I was not sure what kind of regulations BBC has to make sure that vulnerable people are not insulted or subjected to media bullying through its services.
As a journalist who campaigned for almost 17 years for ethical media, I had to do something. I discussed the subject with a fellow journalist and NUJ member, who advised me to write a complaint to BBC. So, I filled a complaint online and made my point of view known.
I have received the following reply from BBC the next day:
Dear Mrs Tamimi
Thanks for contacting us regarding ‘Live at the Apollo’ which was broadcast on 21 January.
I understand you had concerns with comments made on the programme about mental illness by Jack Whitehall. Comedy often deals with the vulnerability of the human condition, and humour is made at the expense of almost all of us at some time. Jokes about death, illness, senility or disability crop up regularly but they are generally not laughing at the physical or mental anguish suffered by those experiencing such tragedy. Rather they are probing human vulnerability, and how people may react when faced with these situations. Can I also add that as the BBC is a public service financed by the licence fee it must provide programmes which cater for the whole range of tastes in humour? We believe that there is no single set of standards in this area on which the whole of society can agree, and it is inevitable that programmes which are acceptable to some will occasionally strike others as distasteful. The only realistic and fair approach for us is to ensure that the range of comedy is broad enough for all viewers to feel that they are catered for at least some of the time.
I do appreciate that this is an issue you feel strongly about, therefore please be assured your complaint will be added to our audience log, a daily report of audience feedback that’s made available to many BBC staff, including members of the BBC Executive Board, channel controllers and other senior managers.
The audience logs are seen as important documents that can help shape decisions about future programming and content.
Thanks again for taking the time to contact us.
It seems that our colleague at BBC Complaints presumes the audience are a bunch of ignorant people who have little knowledge of their rights, journalists’ codes of ethics or how the media machine is oiled.
He started his reply with the wrong side of the argument: ‘I understand you had concerns with comments made on the programme about mental illness by Jack Whitehall’.
I have to explain that I did not have ‘concerns’. I had a complaint, and I made that clear in my email. Our BBC colleague’s claim that ‘Comedy often deals with the vulnerability of the human condition…’ left me confused since as far as I know, the kind of comedy voiced by Jack Whitehall can only be produced by amateurs. Professional comedians who had the minimum amount of education about their art would certainly avoid squeezing themselves in this narrow corner of offensive humour. Laughing at people’s misery or misfortunes has disappeared along with the tools of the black and white film era. Removing a chair and making someone fall over is not funny any more; nor is making jokes about people suffering mental problems.
How can our colleague be sure that these comedians ‘are not laughing at the physical or mental anguish suffered by those experiencing such illness’? I do not know on what basis he presumed that someone who suffers deep depression is capable of understanding his explanation of such media bullying.
What is even more unacceptable is our colleague’s justification of such cruelty because ‘as the BBC is a public service financed by the licence fee it must provide programmes which cater for the whole range of tastes in humour’.
It seems that BBC has forgotten that a large percentage of its viewers, who happen to be licence fee payers, are people suffering mental illnesses. The majority of depressed people lock themselves inside their homes, their TV sets turned on, to compensate for the loss of the human presence. Everything broadcasted affects them in a far more intense way because of their sensitivity, fragility and vulnerability.
According to medical statistics, 2.8% of U.S. population (5.8 million) suffer bipolar disorder and I do not think the British are very far from such estimates.
If BBC is worried about its finances provided by the tax payer, it has to consider that depression is costing the economy £8.6bn a year because hundreds of thousands of people are unable to go to work.
It might be true that ‘there is no single set of standards on which the whole of society can agree’, but I believe common sense does not need a committee to list a set of standards of what can be considered distasteful. We all know that people suffering mental anguish might conceive and interpret ideas differently from those who are immune due to happiness and good health.
I disagree with the BBC’s vision that the only realistic and fair approach for them ‘is to ensure that the range of comedy is broad enough for all viewers to feel that they are catered for at least some of the time’. It is not a fair approach to cater for the taste of some insensitive people to please them at the expense of those who can’t even smile. The BBC should consider its mission as a public service, part of which is educational, and convey its messages through different means other than bias or ridiculous entertainment. And if BBC can’t make that happen, a slice of its funding should be withdrawn and redirected to the NHS to fix the damage caused by this irresponsible BBC.
If the BBC really believes that ‘the only realistic and fair approach for us is to ensure that the range of comedy is broad enough for all viewers to feel that they are catered for at least some of the time’, it means that BBC is willing to cater for those who have a wearied sense of humour who make jokes that would offend all spectrums of minorities and cater for those who laugh at jokes that encourage aggressiveness, hatred and bad manners.
Is the BBC trying to tell us that it caters for the taste of the majority and ignores the harm done to the minority? Is its mission about making those who can afford to pay its licence fee happy, without any moral obligation towards the suffering minority?
It seems BBC has to be reminded why it is being funded by public money in the first place.
Iqbal Tamimi is the Director of Arab Women Media Watch Centre in UK