Without Prejudice?

Saturday, January 4, 2003 by

Much – probably too much – has been written about the continuing trend for TV programmes to encourage us to make negative judgements about each other. Whilst Big Brother asks us to evict a housemate, The Weakest Link wants us to pick on the less able. But we know all this already. Channel 4′s latest entrant into this genre, Without Prejudice?, is wholly based upon casting judgement, but judgement purely for its own sake. So is it a long overdue dissection of this brand of telly, or simply the most out and out exponent yet?

Without Prejudice? features Lisa Tarbuck presiding over five people who have to decide who out of a second group of five should be awarded £50,000. None of the participants in either group have met each other before, and it is with this innovation that the show seeks to explore the judgements we often make about other people. The first round is particularly eye-opening in this regard, with the panel instructed to disqualify one of the contestants after viewing a short piece of film in which the hopefuls merely state their name and their age. “I don’t want him to have the money… he has enormous ears” comes one of the responses.

The youngest male is dismissed first, discriminated against because it’s assumed that he is at a more advantageous point in his life than any of the others. With the WASP falling victim to a a self-conscious stance by the panel against exhibiting any real, “dangerous” prejudice (a bias against the young and healthy is socially acceptable), we’re left with a pick’n'mix bunch who can potentially press all sort of buttons. A gay restaurateur, a high-flying black woman, a socially disadvantaged spinster and a dentally challenge OAP with (apparently) enormous ears and a young Thai bride, all together present an ideological minefield just waiting for someone to stumble into the explosives.

And that’s really what it’s all about. In assembling our random five, the programme-makers must hope that at least one member of the panel will reveal themselves to be a ghoul at the table. In fact, this does happen – to a point – part way through the programme when our middle-aged gentleman from the North East mumbles something about homosexuality being “unnatural”. As expected, most of the others weigh in calling him a homophobe, but while it’s quite right that his comments don’t go unchecked, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the others are mainly banner waving. Alongside this, there’s an element of recursion here; whilst the panel sit in judgement on the contestants, we the viewers sit in judgement on the panel. But this, I think, is where the programme falls short.

In Without Prejudice? it’s only the contestants who have to face up to any consequences, however they are not the agitators here. This, I think, unbalances the show, and brings about some troubling conclusions. The panel are the ones who actually reveal themselves to be prejudiced, but at the end of the programme they just walk away. By not challenging some of their more contentious comments Without Prejudice? is tacitly approving of them. Alongside this, it’s also condoning the practise of reacting with bias, and actively seeking to do others down.

Nevertheless, the programme does remain interesting and valuable television. At least it’s trying to engage with some of the fundamental issues wrapped up with this type of viewing, where others simply use divisive behaviour as a gaming tool. For that it should be (cautiously) welcomed, even if the morality has got a little muddy.


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