Bad News, Russell Howard

Contrary to popular belief I, and my colleagues at Trans Media Watch, don’t actually control the British media. So, when a problem pops up, we just try and deal with it as best we can.

In the case of the now infamous Russell Howard’s Good News sketch, we sent out a condemnatory press release, which was picked up by Pink News.

Many people wrote in to the BBC, and we urged offended viewers to also contact Ofcom. The irony is that, though many people expressed displeasure with the piece, only 34 complained to the television regulator – probably because they thought: “TMW is dealing with it”. Well, we tried, but we still encourage as many as possible to take direct action.

We appreciate that not everyone was offended by the skit. However, a significant proportion of the trans community were, and we were eager to communicate the depth of feeling to the cisgender establishment.

I thought it might be a good idea to get a personal angle from someone affected by the programme – to show Ofcom and the BBC exactly why the trans community objects to this sort of content. I’m sad to say, a grandmother named Doreen contacted me with the just the sort of emotional story I’d been looking for. What made it the ideal case study is also the thing which makes it so completely tragic.

Doreen describes the “traumatic” experience of watching the RHGN sketch: “I was revolted and sickened by the way transsexual people were portrayed.” She adds: “It brought back memories of how this kind of programming had a suicidal effect on my deceased partner and soul mate, who underwent male to female gender reassignment.”

When they first met, her partner was close to suicide, something which Doreen blames largely on the media: “After receiving death threats, her car had been broken into and a noose placed on the dashboard. We were both subjected to constant abuse, often exacerbated by the way transgender themes were portrayed on TV. Most of the programmes we had seen were extremely voyeuristic, and this contributed to the feeling that she wanted to end her life.”

However, that decision was soon taken out of her hands.

“I remember worrying that my partner was not warm enough” says Doreen – of what she thought was an ordinary walk with the dogs. Health issues were a real concern: “She had heart problems and leukaemia and really felt the cold.”

Alarmingly, a man rode a bicycle between the couple: almost knocking Doreen over and resulting in an argument: “He had his fists in her face; trying to goad her into a fight. She was obviously having an angina attack, going blue around the lips and tried to show him the scar from a heart bypass.” His response was cruel: “I know what you want to show me … you want to get a better wig”.

Doreen stood behind the aggressor, asking him to leave. Eventually, after repeated requests to do so, he rode off. Doreen’s partner collapsed into the brambles at the side of the footpath – dying.

The pain stays with Doreen to this day. She says there have been many programmes which had a bad effect on her partner’s life, but that RHGN is worse than anything she’s previously seen. “[These shows] were bad news for us, as we experienced the behaviour of people influenced by such content.”

She now believes it’s time the BBC stopped encouraging transphobic bullying: “These programmes breed a mentality which can cause the type of abuse we were both subjected to”. Doreen, who is not transgender herself, said that children who called her “tranny” in the street didn’t understand what they were saying: “Watershed does not help, because we were verbally abused by children as young as 8 or 9, influenced by what their older companions had seen.”

Her view is that television ‘comedy’ precipitates much of the everyday harassment suffered by trans people and their loved ones: “Programmes such as Russell Howard’s Good News, where exaggerated genitals were exposed, are NOT funny. The result is taunts like ‘I’m a lay-dee’ are now being added to the vocabulary of the abusers.” Unfortunately, Ofcom doesn’t take the issue as seriously – as evidenced by its disappointing response to our complaint. It says the show hasn’t broken any part of its Broadcasting Code.

Doreen is thinking about not renewing her TV licence. “Why should I, when the fee is used to incite low-lifes to violence or verbal abuse towards a minority – who suffer enough without the BBC broadcasting such revolting rubbish?”

For the makers of the show – who defend the sketch on grounds of comedic context – Doreen has a simple final message: “I hope you can rest at night… I can’t.”

Russell, I hope you’re reading this.

*

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20 thoughts on “Bad News, Russell Howard

  1. Ashlee Kelly says:

    “Contrary to popular belief I, and my colleagues at Trans Media Watch, don’t actually control the British media.”

    That’s a lie! :P

    In all seriousness, great article. I remember hearing Doreens story before, it’s heartbreaking. The Russell Howard skit was just lame as hell. When I spoke to one of my housemates about why I was offended by it, he replied that the joke was simply about ‘budget trans people on a budget airline’, which got me thinking; what if the skit was on black people, and they got mistrels to play budget blacks? No way would they get away with it it. Either way you look at it, the skit was offensive.

    And it’s a shame that Ofcom felt that Russell Howard didn’t do anything wrong, but in a way I’m hoping that this has at least got his attention. As someone that watches Good News, I know that Russell is actually very liberal, and I don’t believe that he actually set out to attack trans people. But that’s beside the point; he should know better. And I’m hoping that in the future he’ll treat trans people with respect, like the way he treats gays. If he’s learned something from this then it’ll be all worth it. He got lucky that trans bashing isn’t taken as seriously as gay bashing or black bashing or any other minority bashing by Ofcom, but I just hope that in the future he’ll do a skit on trans people that is at least funny.

    Which is another problem I have with trans jokes; cisgender people seem to find them hilarious, but I’ve yet to hear an original trans joke (that has come from someone who isn’t trans). It’s all “chicks with dicks”, “I’m a laydee”, or blokes dressed like drag acting way over the top. These things are never done with any affection either, it’s just dull as hell to hear comedians or TV shows come out with the exact same jokes on trans people. I honestly don’t know what’s worse, that it’s offensive or that it’s lazy writing. But then, I seem to be the only one who sees that.

    I just reminded myself of another trans-related thing on Good News. Good News has an extended version called Good News Extra, which is virtually the same show just with a few extra bits, including an up and coming comic have a go at a stand up routine. Most of these (bar one or two), have been rubbish, and this one was no exception. He bashed trans people for a goofive minutes, recalling an encounter he had in a bar. Apparently there are three types of trans people: ones that he doesn’t think were born male, ones that he only realizes are born male after a close inspection, and ones that are obviously born male. As you’d expect from a routine involving trans people, it just revolved around general cock-in-a-frock jokes. I don’t remember the episode nor the “comedian”, but I wouldn’t reccomend finding it on the grounds that it was offensive and shit anyway.

    I realise I’ve wrote a wall of text on a post…I really need to start a blog at some point. I’m a lazy bitch.

  2. Jane Bloggs says:

    I doubt Russell Howard would be reading this , because Russell Howard doesn’t give a fuck about Trans people.

    I also received that letter from Ofcom today . What a messy crock of shit .
    Its easy for people to bullshit about freedom of speech when they are protected by perceived “normality” .
    I don’t see where the fuck cis gendered people get off tell our community what we are allowed to find offensive, and how such disgusting trans-negative “comedy” is acceptable. The context they speak of in the letter is confused at best , at worst its clearly a piss take at our expense (but don’t complain , they obviously know better than us).

    I have to be honest I was deeply fucked off when I read that only 34 people had complained.

    Trans people have to take responsibility for political activism for themselves, people like Paris Lees , and everyone else at Trans Media Watch do what they do because they are compassionate, motivated , and real. Not because its their personal responsibility to wipe peoples asses for them.

    Its time people got off their fat behinds and took some responsibility for themselves.

    Then theres the tragic and heart breaking story Paris highlights above….
    I would love not only Russell Howard, the BBC and Ofcom ,his many gay supporters , but also the idiot transsexual who I repeatedly kept seeing (commenting in relation to the show on various websites) saying “Pick your fights” to read that story and tell us that there isn’t a direct correlation to this kind of media abuse , and the abuse Trans people suffer everyday.

    If this isn’t a fight to pick , so we don’t have to exist as nothing better than a punchline , or a sport , then I don’t know what is.

  3. PeteW says:

    I don’t live in the UK so I don’t know if it’s easier for people there to find the right words for writing a complaint or maybe it’s just me thinking I’m not entitled to let me feelings about an offensive show be known. But setting up a page that has the basics done automatically so people like me would only have to fill in as much or as little about their personal feelings / thought and then send it off on their behalf (or even from their own adress) should be easy enough to implement. So more ppl who got hurt may get heard? I know sb who’s been driven ever closer to taking his own life by that kind of show (and well meaning ‘friends’ even telling him to get used to that, because this constant ridicule is the life ‘he’s been asking for’ ). I think it was actually you guys (at Trans Media Watch) who got him better by giving him some hope.

  4. Well written Paris. The photo of Russell Howard with a smug self-satisfied grin is so appropriately chosen to sit atop such a sad tale of bullying.

    The BBC need to get a grip on the problem they have with the current generation of ‘comedians’, as they are no laughing matter.

  5. Excellent blogg piece Paris .
    I must admit i was so annoyed with my Ofcom letter i wrote a email of rage back to them.
    I dont have the word skills of others, and i know it will be totally ignored, but here
    is my angry letter.

    ………………………..

    This decision by Ofcom is absurd and needs to be appealed.

    When it comes to offensive discrimination, the fact that a comedy is
    irreverent should not be a defense.

    The fact that a show is in its fourth series does not make an
    offensive discriminatory sketch non discriminatory.

    The fact that a comedian is popular, well established or is supposedly
    irreverent does not make a offensive discriminatory sketch non
    discriminatory.

    The fact that it was broadcast on BBC 3 after 9 o’clock does stop a
    sketch being discriminatory.

    The is absolutely no evidence that the sketch was about budget
    airlines missing the point about transgender equality.

    If the sketch was merely about budget airlines that does not excuse
    blatant stereotype discrimination against a minority within the
    sketch.

    An average person (aka the man on the Clapham Omnibus in common law)
    watching the show would be highly likely to believe the sketch was
    about Transgendered cabin crew.

    AS THE TERM EASYBOY/LADYBOY WAS USED IS VERY STRONG EVIDENCE THAT THE
    SKETCH WAS INTENDED TO BE ABOUT TRANSGENDERED MALE TO FEMALE PERSONS.

    THE FACT THAT THE SKETCH BLATANTLY CONCENTRATED ON THE EXAGGERATED
    SEXUAL ORGANS OF THE CREW CLEARLY SHOWS THE SKETCH WAS ABSOLUTELY
    ABOUT
    THE TRANSGENDERED NATURE OF THE SEX OF CREW AND DIRECTLY PLAYED UPON
    TRANSPHOBIC BIGOTRY AND TRANSPHOBIC FEAR OF TRANSGENDERED PEOPLE.

    THE EXAGGERATED PORTRAYAL OF ANY MINORITY IS CLEAR EVIDENCE OF ATTEMPT
    TO intentionally DENIGRATE THAT MINORITY

    In looking at the wider context you failed to look at the wide context
    of the effect of stereotype discrimination on a minority.

    If the sketch had been about a racial or cultural minority being cabin
    crew, imagine the black and white minstrels offensive
    exaggeration, but add huge dangling genitalia it would rightfully be
    deemed highly offensive discrimination.

    IT IS HARD TO IMAGINE HOW THE SKETCH COULD BE MORE OBSCENELY DISCRIMINATORY.

    THIS OFCOM DECISION MUST BE APPEALED AGAINST.

  6. misswonderly says:

    This a really excellent post, Paris. Highlights the real life human effects of Howard’s so-called comedy. Also your comment very to the point, Ashlee.

    There’s a very simple issue here. Either gender identity is recognised as a minority characteristic which should not be subject of abuse and discrimination or it’s not. The UN, EU, UK government, it’s regulators and independent regulators, the BBC charter, broadcasting unions etc. all recognise it as such. If an airline decided on an equality programme to ensure employment to ethnic, disabled, gay or any other discriminated minority and Russell Howard then lampooned it by portraying an airline which hired extreme, pejorative stereotypes of any such minority, it would be a no-brainer. All he’ll would break out.

    This is only the beginning. We are going to beat these people over the head for as long as it takes until they get this.

  7. Jess Treverton says:

    That’s such a sad story, its shocking that such bigotry still exists and I am sure it’s a large part due to programmes like Russell Howards and Little Britain. I complained to the BBC and Ofcom and am waiting a reply. I was saddened that only 34 people complained to OfCom, I know a lot more than that found it offensive but for whatever reason couldn’t be bothered to complain, until people speak out and say “this is not acceptable!” things are not going to change!
    Remember this
    “I wondered why somebody didn’t do something; then I realized I was somebody!”
    “The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.”
    If not you, who?
    If not now, when?

  8. Mx Squiggle says:

    Ofcom are clearly not fit for purpose. -Perhaps there needs to be a class action defamation case against the producers and distributors of the programme?

  9. Natacha says:

    Well written and well researched, Russell Howard needs to hear about this, so do the Governors of the BBC and the timewasters at Ofcom.

  10. Megan says:

    Thanks for a great piece Paris :)

    Only 34 people complained, that’s very scary as both myself, my partner and a friend of our complained to Ofcom and got their stock reply email, so that leaves us with 31 people out of how many people in the UK are trans?

    I don’t honestly see how they can say with a straight face that there was nothing offensive about that sketch, Zoe Equality Blackmore summed it up perfectly. Does anyone actually have the official reply from Ofcom on their findings? As I’ve received no correspondence from them since I complained originally.

    We were talking about stopping out T.V license this year but decided to keep it going; after this i’m seriously considering not renewing and sending a letter to Ofcom and the BBC to explain why, not that they will care of listen.

  11. stephanie says:

    i want to appeal. anyone know how to do it. stephanie. x

    • We’re working out how to respond to this now: my gut reaction is that it would be a waste of time, and that we would be better off trying to educate the people who produce these shows rather than wasting time with the regulators. I mean really, what’s the point?

  12. Jo Beck says:

    A very good peice Paris, one I hope cisgender folk read. I will admit that I was furious when my letter arrived yesterday as it was very clear that Ofcom had completely missed the mark, by a very long way.
    Can this be appealed? I saw nothing in the letter to suggest that Ofcom’s decision was – in their view – anything other then final.

  13. [...] Lees has a great post on the human cost of trans people being treated with contempt in this way by people supposed to [...]

  14. [...] response to the transphobic sketch on Russell Howard’s Good News. Many people were touched by Doreen’s story, and I messaged her to say thanks. I also wanted to know what her partner’s name was; it was [...]

  15. [...] after deriving humour in exactly the same way from exactly the same news story. (Yeah: this joke is old.) Then too we saw a focus on genitals, audience disgust, and laughter that such a serious scheme [...]

  16. Greg says:

    Maybe the fact that only 34 people complained is more because not only the majority of people, but seemingly the majority of trans, don’t actually give a fuck?

    Occam’s razor – the simplest explanation is often the truest.

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