'Brother's' keepers defend show


LONDON -- Channel 4 chairman Luke Johnson is refusing to bow to pressure to axe controversial reality show "Celebrity Big Brother" but has apologized for "any offense that may have been caused" by alleged racist bullying on the show.

Johnson and chief executive Andy Duncan -- who are facing calls for their resignations -- said that, instead of pulling the show, they will mount an editorial review into the program and comply with media regulator Ofcom's inquiry into more than 45,000 viewer complaints.

Speaking late Monday after the broadcaster's board met to discuss the firestorm, Johnson denied that the broadcaster was promoting racist behavior and said the show "had triggered an important debate."

"All board members of Channel 4 abhor racism. We are also committed to ensuring that the channel continues to fulfil its remit to explore important social issues," Johnson said. "Clearly many people were worried and offended by what they saw. I want to reassure them that we take the views of our audience very seriously."

At the meeting, Duncan was called to account for allowing the broadcaster to air what appeared to be a sustained, racially-motivated attack directed at Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty without intervening.

Johnson said that Channel 4 will cooperate with an Ofcom inquiry into the show and that executives will attempt to "identify lessons that can be learned for the future."

"On behalf of the board, the chief executive and I have commissioned a review of the editorial and compliance processes that support "Big Brother," Johnson said.

The firestorm over the Bollywood actress' treatment at the hands of three white contestants has dominated front pages and news bulletins here for the past week.

The political ramifications of Channel 4's role in allowing the prolonged campaign of bullying -- which generated over 45,000 viewer complaints -- have yet to unfold.

The broadcaster is midway through a review of its purposes and funding by media regulator Ofcom, and is lobbying political circles for public funding and support.

Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell has condemned the program as offering "racism as entertainment," while race relations advisor Trevor Phillips, chairman of the commission for racial equality, said senior executives should face censure for not acting sooner.

But the most damaging aspect of the row is how it threatened to derail prime-minister-in waiting Gordon Brown's trade trip to India last week.

On a trip designed to promote British trade links with the sub continent, Brown found his purpose overshadowed by the controversy, as effigies of the show's producers were burned in street protests in the actress's home state.