A real shitstorm | Huge hoo-ha over Barry Cryer's colostomy bag joke

A real shitstorm

Huge hoo-ha over Barry Cryer's colostomy bag joke

A pun Barry Cryer made on I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue has been referred to the highest level of the BBC after a listener took offence.

On the Radio 4 show in January, panellists were asked to add a word to the title of a song to make it a lot less appealing. Cryer suggested ‘Papa’s got a brand new colostomy bag’. 

The listener complained that the joke was an ‘offensive and unacceptable portrayal of disability’ and that mentioning the device for‘a laugh from a negative stereotype was no longer acceptable’.

She argued that by referencing a colostomy bag, 81-year-old Cryer had aimed for a ‘reaction of disgust’, which implied that those who had undergone the ‘radical body-altering surgery’ was in turn ‘disgusting or repulsive’.

And she argued that while mockery was a valid comic device against ‘supposedly legitimate targets’, it was not acceptable to use it against people who had suffered misfortune and who had no voice or right of reply.

The listener first complained to the BBC’s  Audience Services department, who said the joke was the normal sort of ‘daft wordplay’ listeners of the long-running show would expect, and that the humour rested on the incongruity of the added word – not against people who used colostomy bags.

That did not satisfy the complainant, who took it to the next stage, the Editorial Complaints Unit, which agreed with the original decision that the gag was a ‘simple play on words’ that could not be regarded as so offensive that it should not have been broadcast. ‘There was no apparent malice or knowing intent to offend,’ they found.

Again the listener was unhappy, saying that the BBC  replies had been unsatisfactory and she had been treated in an ‘extremely patronising and pompous' way – so escalated her complaint to the BBC Trust, which governs the corporation.

An adviser to the trust reassessed whether the complaint breached the BBC editorial guidelines, and concluded that an appeal was unlikely to succeed, so thought it would not be ‘appropriate, proportionate or cost-effective’. The adviser also said that the replies to the listener’s complaint had been ‘thoughtful and well-reasoned’.  

Again that did not satisfy the listener, who repeated her complaint that the joke exploited a prejudice and that the replies showed the complacency of an ‘ignorant and backward’ BBC.

So a panel of the editorial standards committee – the final arbiter on such matters – looked into the case again, and in a five-page ruling today ruled out an appeal.

They repeated the stance that the complainant had been dealt with fairly and appropriately and said: ‘The inclusion of this particular joke might well have caused offence to some but the introduction and the round itself, clearly set out its purpose to make a song ‘a lot less appealing’ by the addition of a word. The humour of the round lay in the change of context.

Published: 28 Oct 2016

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