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The "Retard" Controversy Over the Water

04/20/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The "retard" controversy swirling around public figures in the US has been pretty toxic for the last couple of months, especially for Sarah Palin, who has flip-flopped on the issue of whether words matter (for her, it seems as if it depends whether a right-winger or a left-winger says them). But enough of that -- here's a perspective from over the water, where we've had our own "r-word" crisis.

There were red faces all around at the broadcaster, Channel 4, which prides itself on its commitment to diversity across the spectrum. It has enraged disability charities and disabled people, with its initial refusal to apologize for the Channel 4 program Big Brother's Big Mouth, broadcast on 29.1.10, in which Vinnie Jones, a footballer, and the presenter Davina McCall mocked "retards." Vinnie Jones accused Davina McCall of "walking like a retard," and gave the audience a demonstration of what a "retard" walks like. Davina McCall responded by saying: "I do not walk like a retard."

Channel 4 originally said that participants should be able to talk "without censure," bleating that it was at the "end of a very intensive day" for the poor producers -- but after an active Facebook campaign by disabled people and groups did apologize privately to two individuals. A red-faced spokesman admitted that the original defensive response was a mistake and there should have been an on-air apology. It has now made its grovelling apology public, saying: "We would normally respond to an inappropriate comment of that nature by asking the presenter to admonish the person responsible and apologize to the audience, but on this occasion, this did not happen. We have removed their comments from the Video on Demand version of the program."

The matter has gone to Ofcom, a body which regulates broadcasting matters -- which has ruled against the first complaint from Nicky Clark, who runs a campaign to boost disabled talent on-screen, bleating that although the matter was "sensitive" the word was not aimed against people with a learning disability. How strange, then, that so many people with a learning disability feel it was! As Mark Goldring, the chief executive of the learning disability, Mencap, comments, it's both "offensive and insulting."

But the matter doesn't end there. Channel 4 is about to broadcast a program on disability hate crime. As I found when I wrote my report on hate crime, it was allowing nasty and demeaning language like the r-word to go unchallenged that then seemed to give perpetrators the moral courage to escalate their behavior to far worse acts. As Nicky Clark says: "When a national broadcaster allows this behavior to go unchallenged they are saying that it's ok."

At least Vinnie Jones has seen the error of his ways, with his spokesman saying: "On behalf of Vinnie Jones I'd like to apologisze for any offense caused by comments made on Big Brother's Big Mouth on January 29th 2010. While the show was live and the conversation was unscripted and off the cuff, Vinnie in no way meant to upset anyone and fully appreciates the choice of word was inappropriate." Perhaps it's as inappropriate as Channel 4 having been awarded the rights to the Paralympics ...