Channel 4 has refused to apologise for offensive and disablist “jokes” made by the comedian Frankie Boyle, despite the broadcasting watchdog upholding a complaint about the material.
Ofcom has ruled that the jokes about Harvey Price, the disabled son of the reality TV star Katie Price, breached the broadcasting code of conduct, although it has declined to fine Channel 4 or impose any other punishment.
The material led to 500 complaints to Ofcom, and was the latest in a series of incidents in which disablist language used by Channel 4 and its “talent” has sparked anger among disabled activists.
Channel 4 claimed the material on Frankie Boyle’s Tramadol Nights was “absurdist satire”, and that Harvey Price had not been its target.
But Ofcom dismissed Channel 4’s defence and found the jokes had a “straightforward focus on Harvey Price and his disability” and “appeared to directly target and mock the mental and physical disabilities of a known eight year-old child who had not himself chosen to be in the public eye” and had “considerable potential to be highly offensive to the audience”.
But because the content was “carefully considered” by senior editorial staff before it was broadcast, and the show was clearly signposted by Channel 4 as potentially offensive, Ofcom concluded that the broadcaster was not guilty of a “fundamental” breach of the code.
This meant no financial punishment was imposed and Channel 4 will not be forced to apologise on-air.
When asked by Disability News Service whether it would apologise and if it agreed with Ofcom’s conclusion that it had made an error of editorial judgement, Channel 4 declined to comment.
Dr Ju Gosling, co-chair of the LGBT disabled people’s organisation Regard, who has been prominent in criticising Channel 4 for its use of offensive and disablist language, said the material was “despicable” and she found it “astonishing” that senior figures at Channel 4 were “grubbing about in the dirt to find reasons not to apologise”.
She said Ofcom had proved again that it was “particularly weak” in dealing with complaints about disability issues.
Jaspal Dhani, chief executive of the UK Disabled People’s Council, said the Ofcom ruling was “worrying” and demonstrated again how it had shown too much “leniency” on the use of offensive language around disability.
He said: “I don’t think they would be as lenient if these issues were related to race. They should demand an apology.”
In a separate ruling about the same series, Ofcom ruled that a sketch that supposedly satirised the Time to Change mental health anti-stigma campaign – featuring a man with a mental health condition who had just murdered his wife and children – did not breach the code, because it was “justified by the context”.
Ofcom said the “intention of this sketch – to use satire and controversy to make a joke about society’s attitudes to mental health – would have been well understood by the majority of the audience”.
But Rethink, which runs Time to Change with Mind, said it was “extremely disappointed” by the ruling, although “the public outcry following the sketch speaks for itself”.
Paul Jenkins, chief executive of Rethink, said the sketch had caused “distress to a lot of people”, and added: “Rethink fully supports freedom of expression, but the line must be drawn somewhere.
“The idea that this was some kind of attempt to criticise negative attitudes towards mental illness is laughable.”