TV UK, 30 October

Kenan Malik exposes the muddled thinking of diversity policy.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

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The customary chatshow bonhomie was suspended for a few minutes on the Frank Skinner Show on Monday night (ITV1). Matthew Kelly, the TV presenter and actor who was arrested and then acquitted of child abuse earlier this year, confronted Skinner about some ‘horrible jokes’ he and David Baddiel had told when Kelly was under suspicion.

Skinner held his ground pretty well, insisting that the issue had been fair game, but the exchange generated the kind of raw atmosphere that reality TV producers would kill for. This had a rather dulling effect on Skinner’s re-telling of the jokes (one to the effect that with his head shaved for a play, Kelly looked like a paedophile, and the other suggesting that kids spending the night with Michael Jackson should let Kelly know they wouldn’t be at his place).

To an objective observer, it was clear that Kelly was just too close to the issue to be sensible about it. In the right context, the jokes were funny, but nobody would expect Kelly to laugh at them. Jokes are just like that.

There was a similar moment on Disunited Kingdom on Wednesday (Channel 4), when Kenan Malik tried out a joke on Clive Wolfendale, the Assistant Chief Constable of North Wales. What do you call a sheep tied to a Welsh lamp-post? …A leisure centre. Boom, boom! Except that Wolfendale was not amused, no more than he had been when Anne Robinson had a go at the Welsh on a BBC light entertainment show, and North Wales police sent detectives to interview BBC chief Greg Dyke. He said he was irritated.

No doubt many others will feel the same about Malik’s programme, which was a critique of multiculturalism, not just in its more absurd and censorious guises, but as an ideology that emphasises difference rather than commonality. The writer charges that multiculturalism has intensified divisions, and led to something like apartheid in northern English towns. Channel 4 will take some flak for the programme, but it deserves credit for allowing Malik to take on such a holy cow (albeit at 11.15pm).

There were moments that recalled programmes by Louis Theroux or Jon Ronson, as Malik met an Asian woman, a lesbian and a transsexual who were at a training centre to teach police about diversity, and when he sat in on a Ford diversity course and irritated both the trainers and the ‘students’, who looked like they just wanted to get their heads down and get the course over with, by pointing out the absurdity of the whole situation.

Then there was the pub interview with BNP leader Nick Griffin. Malik announced as they shook hands that he might once have been coming to a pub like this to beat up fascists, rather than chat to them. His street-fighting days may be over, but the bespectacled journalist managed to land a few metaphorical punches, getting Griffin to concede that he shares the multiculturalists’ belief that we are defined by our differences.

Malik played back the interview to Lee Jasper, London’s Godfather of multiculturalism. Jasper was unperturbed at seeing Griffin cite approvingly his own position on separate schooling. He dismissed Malik’s position as a ‘white left’ one (much worse than sharing ground with the far right, apparently), and disappeared into a lift with a Black Power salute.

Malik’s attempt to start a debate about multiculturalism is commendable. The problem faced by him, and anyone else who takes the issue seriously, is that contemporary British multiculturalism has a going-through-the-motions character. Its assumptions are implicit, and few if any advocates are willing to take intellectual responsibility for them.

Whereas Matthew Kelly was genuinely upset by the jokes told at his expense, Clive Wolfendale was striking a professional pose about Malik’s anti-Welsh gag. The absurdities of the diversity courses and so on arise from this same bureaucratic mindset. Sometimes, all you can do is take the piss.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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