Slapping the Turkey


I have watched several episodes of this season’s Big Brother with the aim of writing (respectfully) of a show which clearly communicates something to its million plus viewers most of them young people.


But I have found it impossible.

Like Germaine Greer, who took part in the UK version of the show and has commented in The Guardian on last week’s events in Australia, I was distressed by the way in which contestants were forced to lie to and manipulate each other. Many of the rules of the Big Brother household (no privacy, no access to reading materials or the outside world, sleep deprivation) seem akin to torture (for the viewer as well as the participants) albeit torture with a certain degree of middle-class comfort.

I even find myself forced to agree with John Howard that the show is ‘stupid.’ But I have no sympathy for calls that the show be banned.

Howard was quick to jump to conclusions in what’s become known in the blogosphere as ‘Turkeyslapgate‘ an incident in which a female Big Brother-housemate was pinned down by a male housemate and had a penis shoved in her face by a third. The incident, which could be watched ‘live’ by those who paid for internet streaming, occurred at 4:00am, and was seen by a grand total of 130 people at the time.

Howard was certainly much quicker off the mark to comment about this event than he was last summer when he refused to condemn the rioters at Sydney’s Cronulla Beach before he had ‘all the facts.’ His statement:

The business community is always saying to me, ‘Let us self-regulate.’ Well, here’s a great opportunity for Channel Ten to do a bit of self-regulation and get this stupid program off the air

covers up Howard’s desire that we take Australia back to a more ‘innocent’ time the 1950s a time when sexual assaults were not seen or heard, and people certainly didn’t have to discuss a ‘turkey slap’ (yes, it’s the first time I’ve heard that phrase, too) over dinner (or breakfast).

Whether the incident is characterised as sexual assault (Pru Goward: ‘She was embarrassed by it and I guess that is the test for sexual harassment’), or playful hijinks (‘Ash’ the turkey-slapper himself: ‘we were just mucking around, having a good time’) does Howard actually believe it’s the ‘fault’ of television rather than a broader community problem?

And does John Howard or, indeed, Kim Beazley who was just as quick to call for the show to be banned really think that these kind of sexually pressured moments between friends are isolated incidents?

Sexual assault statistics would suggest that is not the case.

Surely, good leadership would be to direct the debate towards the real question: why a woman feels she must play along with these kind of events in the name of being a ‘good sport.’ Instead, politicians have derailed any sensible discussion by calling for the show to be banned.

Only Andrew Bartlett had the guts to avoid false moralising by saying, ‘I don’t watch Big Brother, don’t like the show and find the endless gossip about it that pollutes our newspapers tiresome in the extreme. But when politicians try to emulate the original Big Brother (from George Orwell’s book 1984), I do start to get concerned.’

Turkeyslapgate was an opportunity to discuss, publicly, the definitions of sexual assault. It provided the kind of publicity that an advertising campaign to stop, gee, I don’t know, sexual assault would spend millions of dollars on. Certainly, definitions of appropriate behavior need to be discussed more widely: most of Big Brother’s young fans believe the incident has been blown out of proportion. And in a sense they are right.

Thanks to Alan Moir.

Howard wants to kill the messenger (Big Brother) rather than deal with the message: sexual violence is an ongoing problem in our society. It took Big Brother himself (and, on Melbourne’s ABC radio, Jon Faine) to point out that Camilla, the woman who was held down, was not at fault.

In the meantime, the Federal Minister for Media and Communications, Senator Helen Coonan, searches for ways to allow for the closer monitoring of internet material material she has described as ‘disturbing and offensive’ though she hasn’t taken the trouble to view it herself.

Does the Australian Government know how many millions of miles they are from having any effective understanding of how new media and the internet work? And, consequently, how little success their attempts to tighten control will actually have?

If you’re not convinced of just how befuddled the internet has made some of our politicians, a recent quote from US Senator Ted Steven comes to mind:

I just the other day got, an internet was sent by my staff at 10 o’clock in the morning on Friday and I just got it yesterday. Why? Because it got tangled up with all these things going on the internet commercially … They want to deliver vast amounts of information over the internet. And again, the internet is not something you just dump something on. It’s not a truck. It’s a series of tubes.

So, is all this outrage because Big Brother is, to use Coonan’s phrase, ‘out of step with community standards,’ or is it because the show, in fact, reflects community standards pretty damn well? Channel Ten certainly remains, ‘confident that all of our reality television programming reflects community standards.’

If, unlike Howard, Beazley and Coonan, we want to look beyond the obvious and superficial here, let’s ask something a little more basic and maybe a little more uncomfortable: How is a contained, if unpleasant, sexual assault on TV worse than, say, the continued, unmonitored sexual assault of refugees being held in detention centres? Howard isn’t calling for those institutions to be closed down.

As fellow New Matilda commentator Andrew West has pointed out in last week’s issue a television show like Big Brother is the logical end of Howard’s Australia,

Because for the networks they are cheap to produce and they yield vast amounts in advertising revenue. These days it costs a million dollars-plus to make an hour of Australian drama. Far cheaper far better business sense to install a few video cameras in a house and let the voyeurism begin. That is the ethos of the Howard era: minimum investment, maximum profit.

It seems to me that the only way in which the assault on Camilla does not conform to community standards is that the men that crossed the line this time got caught. Now, that is un-Australian.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.