World leaders mired in 'Brother' racism charge

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LONDON -- The row over alleged racism on Channel 4 reality show "Celebrity Big Brother" escalated into an international incident Wednesday, after British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Treasury Secretary Gordon Brown and Indian External Affairs Minister Anand Sharma became embroiled in the spat.

The show's sponsors, Carphone Warehouse, have also expressed concern about the content.

The Endemol-produced show generated over 20,000 complaints to media regulator Ofcom over the behavior of three contestants to Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty, which included comments about Shetty's personal hygiene, accent and insults about other Indians.

A string of slurs about the actress included one contestant saying: "She makes me feel sick. She makes my skin crawl" -- prompting outpourings on Web sites and chat shows here. Shetty, 31, was described as "a dog" by another contestant and told to pick chicken bones out of the lavatory with her teeth, which left her in tears.

The row has galvanized fans of the Bollywood actress, and has led to protests and front-page coverage and street protests in India. Effigies representing the show's producers have been burned in the streets and the subject has dominated newspaper coverage.

India's external affairs minister, Sharma, said that the behavior was out of step with modern sentiments.

"Surely such racist slurs have no place in civilized society. India has throughout firmly rejected all forms of discrimination and racism," he said, according to wire reports.

His comments pushed the debate into the international arena.

The British prime minister was forced to address the issue at his weekly session in the House of Commons Wednesday, while Treasury Secretary Brown -- who is on an official trip in India to meet with business leaders there -- was forced to issue a comprehensive condemnation of the show's antics, which now threaten to overshadow his trade trip.

"I understand that in the U.K. there have already been 10,000 complaints from viewers about these remarks, which people see, rightly, as offensive," Brown told local reporters in Bangalore.

A senior Brown ally warned that the show risked tarnishing Britain's reputation abroad.

"I think people watching this program will be a little ashamed. I certainly am," Treasury Minister Ed Balls told a BBC politics program.

"The fact is that this is an appalling image we are projecting around the world and it is not a good image or a true image of Britain. Economic relations go both ways; both with British companies going to India and also Indian companies investing (with us) it is very important indeed."

Channel 4 said it took allegations of bullying and racial abuse "extremely seriously", and said housemates in the Big Brother house were monitored at all times to ensure they had the proper support to deal with any conflicts.

But it stopped short of accepting that the show's contestants were racist.

A spokesman for the show said there had been a "cultural and class clash" between three other housemates and the Indian star.

"To date there has been no overt racial abuse or racist behavior directed against Shilpa Shetty within the Big Brother house,"he said. "However there has undoubtedly been a cultural and class clash between her and three of the British females in the house."

The show is one of Channel 4's annual ratings-seeking shows and features a group of celebrities living in the "Big Brother" house, where all the rooms have television cameras and they are filmed 24 hours a day and face weekly evictions. Ratings for the program had been lackluster before the row but now appear to have been boosted by the controversy and Shetty has become the bookies favorite to win the show.
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