Racism versus ratings
Padraig Reidy: The BBC's decision not to sack Strictly's Anton Du Beke is about business, not ethics
06 Oct 09

When is it acceptable to call a colleague a “Paki”? When you’re one of the main draws of an already beleaguered flagship entertainment show?

Glossy ballroom dancer Anton Du Beke has caused fresh controversy for the BBC after he reportedly called his dancing partner, half-Moroccan, half-Indian actress Laila Rouass a “Paki”. Du Beke has apologised unreservedly (literally using the phrase “I apologise unreservedly”) and insisted he is “not a racist and does not use racist language”. He has managed to retain his job, and his contract presenting other BBC shows, apparently because he has shown the right amount of contrition at the right time.

Compare and contrast with sometime One Show contributor Carol Thatcher, who was sacked by the BBC after suggesting that tennis player Jo-Wilfried Tsonga looked like a “golliwog”. Thatcher also apologised, but not quite as unreservedly as Du Beke, grudgingly explaining that Tsonga reminded her of the Robinson’s marmalade golliwog of her youth.

There’s a little of Camus’s L’Etranger about this: morality judged not just by one’s actions, but by the extent to which one exercises the correct reaction, the correct amount of remorse and regret, as set by society.

But there’s also, it must be said, something of basic business sense. Strictly has already been under fire, accused of age discrimination after ditching one judge, 66-year-old choreographer Arlene Phillips — knowledgeable and acid-tongued —for previous winner Alesha Dixon — younger and prettier, but widely held to be anodyne and too eager to please. The show is also lagging behind Simon Cowell’s light entertainment behemoth, the X Factor, in the Saturday night ratings.

Carol Thatcher was not a star of the One Show, and was not missed. Du Beke is a star on whom the BBC has staked an awful lot (apart from dancing in Strictly, he has also presented several other light entertainment shows). Could the BBC really afford to take the high ground on this?

By Padraig Reidy

Padraig Reidy is the editor of Little Atoms and a columnist for Index on Censorship. He has also written for The Observer, The Guardian, and The Irish Times.