Two big stories of abuse and intimidation have made headlines at the start of 2007. Both were linked with institutional living, but the fall-out from the two is very different. First is Celebrity Big Brother; second, the Orchard Hill Unit for people with learning difficulties run by Sutton and Merton Primary Care Trust. It doesn’t take an expert in cultural studies to guess which one created the bigger public stir.
Perhaps the more difficult question is, can the exposure of appalling abuse in one health trust lead to enduring improvements in the lives of people with learning difficulties and other social care service users more generally? Talk to people with learning difficulties and they’ll tell you that Orchard Hill is just the tip of an iceberg of abuse and neglect. It’s difficult to believe that the abuse uncovered by the Healthcare Commission was an isolated example. But perhaps Celebrity Big Brother can offer some helpful lessons here.
Big Brother’s programme makers have been forced out into the open about stirring up hatred. Housemate Jermaine Jackson articulated the issue when he said: “In here we can do something about the pain they are trying to get us to inflict on each other”. As manipulation of housemates became extreme and overt, so viewers began to reject it. The denials of racism of housemates and producers were ignored. Big commercial sponsors withdrew. Even a senior executive of sheep-like regulator Ofcom was drawn to say that the programme “might have breached standards”!
Of course it has been a struggle. Over four nights, we watched Jon Snow on Channel Four News say that a representative of Channel Four was invited on the programme, but no one turned up. We heard the chair of Channel Four make the kind of “no comment” statement more often associated with criminals held bang to rights. Meanwhile, Peter Bazalgette, described by one interviewer as “the rather posh” chair of Celebrity Big Brother programme maker Endemol, maintained a determined silence.
Yet people have not been suckered into seeing Jade Goody as the villain. The commercial tie-ins, agents and PR manoeuvrings have been revealed. It was effigies of the programme makers that were burned in India. Channel Four has even been forced to commission a review of Big Brother.
Ordinary people have had their say. They have shown themselves way ahead of the privileged and powerful who run the channels. More than 45,000 phoned in to condemn Celebrity Big Brother for its racism and abuse. They sparked off a sophisticated national debate about racism that puts to shame the politically motivated outpourings about asylum seekers, immigrants and Islam that have taken the space till now. One thing we can say is that Big Brother is unlikely ever to be the same again.
There are lessons here for social care. Public reactions to Celebrity Big Brother have strengthened the view that Britain is at heart anti-discriminatory. This offers levers for those of us in social care to pull – if we have the courage and determination to do so. Most people reject discrimination and abuse – given the chance to challenge them. Too often, it is the policymakers who still have to catch up. That’s why structures for involvement and accountability – still underdeveloped in social care – are so important. They provide the basis for engagement. They are the equivalent of Big Brother’s phone lines. Struggles for accountability and democratisation have never been so important in public life – whether we are talking Big Brother or social care. Celebrity Big Brother has reconnected reality TV with the people. Who is to say the same isn’t achievable for health and social care?