London - Wednesday July 5, 2006
'Sexual harassment is nothing new in Big Brother'
Two men have been evicted from Australia's Big Brother house after an alleged sex attack on a housemate. We may never know exactly what happened, writes Germaine Greer, but it's the programme makers, not the contestants, we should be angry with
When housemate John held down housemate Camilla on Australian Big Brother so that housemate Ashley could pull his penis out of his underpants and push it in her face, Endemol Southern Star and Network Ten hugged themselves with glee and streamed the video uncut on the internet. Not that you could see much; just a back, and a pair of underpants with a fist in them in close proximity to a face. No waving, no gobbling; it wasn't quite a "turkey slap". But the non-event was top story on Channel Ten news for two nights in a row.
Australia's prime minister, John Howard, sensing a heaven-sent opportunity to be seen leading the nation, provided the inevitable comment: "I think it is just a question of good taste. Here is a great opportunity for Channel Ten to do a bit of self-regulation and get this stupid programme off the air." As if. This pious hope was converted by the media into the PM "demanding a ban" on Big Brother. The tabloids pretended that they believed that Howard actually knew what he was talking about.
"The PM watches Big Brother online!" they squealed. Of course he doesn't - but Big Brother was back on top as market leader, with spin-offs whizzing out into infinity.
Two weeks before, Endemol Southern Star, which makes the BB series in Australia, had suffered a serious blow when its adults-only version of the show was taken off air, apparently, after complaints about "excessive nudity". Endemol does not respond to complaints from viewers; it was probably the advertisers who pulled the plug.
A phony scandal of the sort provided by John, Camilla and Ashley was just what was needed to pump up viewing figures for the tamer version of the show. Big Brother swiftly evicted John (real name Michael Cric) and Ashley (real name Michael Cox) and Endemol "proactively invited the Queensland police to view the footage and they subsequently interviewed housemate Camilla who said she did not wish to take the matter forward", according to its official statement.
It is not easy now to judge what really happened. Apparently Camilla got into bed with John and Ashley and they were just horsing around. When Camilla heard that Ashley and John had been evicted, her response was baffling. "I'm really sorry, guys," she wept. "I feel so bad."
According to the pioneering Australian feminist Eva Cox, "If it was an assault, it was a minor one ... they waved their private parts and she told them to put [them] away." Cox obviously hadn't seen the footage either. Nobody waved anything.
Helen Coonan, Australia's federal communications minister, has asked for an investigation into whether internet service providers have breached the code of the Online Content Scheme, in which case they would be liable for fines of up to A$27,500 (£11,115) per day. (Gee.) Meanwhile federal sexual discrimination commissioner Pru Goward seems convinced that a crime has been committed. She is clearly right that sexual harassment in the workplace is a crime and that most of its victims are as unwilling as Camilla to admit that an offence may have been committed against them.
But then sexual harassment is nothing new to Australian Big Brother. In last year's series a housemate reportedly rubbed his naked penis on an uppity female housemate's naked back by way of pretending to give her a massage. This piece of nastiness went to air uncut, as this year's will not. Last September, Big Brother was found to have breached broadcast standards for the massage footage. Network Ten responded by announcing that "this year's housemates will be taught how to avoid sexual harassment and bullying". Words, like everything else on Big Brother, are cheap.
What makes it unlikely that Big Brother will be taken off the air, abroad or back home in Britain, is the tentacular spread of its revenue-generating potential. Reality television is both the cheapest to make and the biggest potential earner for its co-producers, not to mention the communications companies and ISPs. One of the mysteries of Big Brother is just how much money is made by telephone voting and who really gets it. In February this year, Endemol UK signed a new deal with BT. If telephone votes for evictions are electronically logged it should be possible to see the progress of voting day by day, but the producers choose not to make any part of the process public.
The Advertising Standards Authority is reported to be investigating the circumstances in which Suzie Verrico got into this year's British Big Brother house. Endemol and Nestlé collaborated on a four-week golden ticket campaign which persuaded buyers of KitKat chocolate bars that if they found one of 100 tickets hidden in the packaging they could win entry into the Big Brother house. The housemates themselves got the impression that the election of Verrico from among the golden ticket holders was engineered. The ASA report will probably not be ready till months after the series has finished, and when it is published no one will give a damn.
In Britain, Ofcom dealt with dozens of complaints about last year's Big Brother and found the producers at fault only for minor instances of watershed violation. In its defence, Ofcom points out that "much of television is artificial". Indeed, but Big Brother is supposed not to be.
Ofcom makes the point that people in the Big Brother house are there of their own accord and that the producers cannot provide images of actions if the housemates haven't first performed them. This is, of course, true, but the producers can and do elide behaviour which does not fit the image of the individual that fits their brief.
Every picture tells a story, but no picture tells the whole story. No word is more abused by Big Brother producers than "live", unless it is "uncut". Perhaps universities should start running courses on how to watch Big Brother, teaching students to discern how, when and where the mix is being manipulated, and what insultingly tatty television it is, in terms of production values. Huge amounts of money are being made by a galaxy of corporations, merchandising and re-merchandising slipshod trash. One or two housemates might end up making money too, but it will be a smidgen in comparison. Most housemates will simply be used, paid off and forgotten.
Sexual harassment is a part of daily reality; it might have been more useful to have allowed Australian Big Brother viewers to see how housemates coped with it, instead of slinging the perpetrators out holus-bolus. When Pete was sexually harassed by a woman in the current series of British BB nobody thought it anything but funny. Nobody seems to regard the British women's unremitting sexual display as harassment of the men (who seem, it must be said, unmoved). Meanwhile, much is made of the vulnerability of certain of the housemates who are thought to be mentally ill, when in fact all the housemates are being driven crazy.
There are serious ethical issues involved in reality television, and in particular in Big Brother, but I think they are far more to do with manipulation of the public than they are with the trivial adventures of the housemates.