Why the BBC Trust’s ruling on Top Gear matters

It has taken seven long months, much persistence and pages of tough legalistic arguing by Changing Faces to achieve the BBC Trust’s milestone judgment. Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond’s scripted remarks about a car they called ‘the Elephant Car’ did indeed infringe the BBC’s code on harm and portrayal as laid down in their Editorial Guidelines.

Who should take this ruling seriously?

Firstly, BBC – and arguably, other TV – programme makers. The most important passage in the BBC Trust’s decision is this: “The Committee was also mindful that its own finding on this complaint would stand as a reminder to programme-makers of the need to be aware that audiences may find casual or purposeless stereotypes to be offensive”.

Secondly, the Top Gear presenters who, despite the ruling, have persisted in their offensive comments about faces this week on Twitter.

Thirdly, people with disfigurements. Changing Faces exists to improve the quality of life for people with disfigurements and a big part of our effort involves campaigning to ensure that we can all lead a life free from verbal and physical abuse. I hope that lots of people whose faces look unusual will be empowered by this week’s decision to step forward into the spotlight and say ‘Enough!’.

Why does this ruling matter?

Because it highlights just how far we still have to go before Britain’s moral compass shifts to give respect and dignity – without any whiff of ridicule, prejudice, stigma or low expectations – to the 1.3 million people in this country who have a disfigurement to their face or body whether it’s a condition they were born with or acquired later in life as a result of accident, violence, warfare, injury, cancer, skin condition or paralysis.

It is wrong that in 21st Century Britain people like me have to put up with shouts of ‘Phantom’, ‘Alien’, ‘Cor, look at that’, ‘Uurrgh gross’ in the street. It is wrong that children have to endure shouts of ‘Elephant Man’, ‘Pig face’, ‘Freak’ in the playground and then be kicked, punched and spat upon simply because they have an unusual face. It happens and it must stop.

Why are people with disfigurements still fair game for behaviours that would be considered criminal offences if inflicted upon people of different backgrounds, ethnicities or sexuality? We are all protected under the Equalities Act and yet these insults continue. It must stop.

Everyone needs to learn a new respect for people with disfigurements. It starts with the culture and throwing away Victorian freak show’s stereotypes. The new respect is not built on sympathy or pity, and it rejects the vernacular of the medical profession with its labels of ‘deformed’, ‘abnormal’ and ‘defective’.

Instead it acknowledges that we are all citizens with rights, everyday problems, likes and dislikes, lovers and children. It has a new language and way of talking about disfigurement that is factual, respectful and non-judgemental. And that is just the start. We need to question how television and film represent disfigurement, how schools teach about it, how art portrays it, and the written media writes about it. Our entire culture needs a radical overhaul.

On to the next milestone…