Do not joke about the bomb

24 January 2011 Updated: 25 January 2011

The BBC has managed to hit a nerve in Japan for a section in an episode of QI broadcast in December. I have only seen the 3-minute clip widely available on the net, not the entire programme, and it certainly made me cringe. I think a lot of this was lost in translation, and there was definitely no malice towards Mr Yamaguchi on the part of the programme or the panel. Indeed, most of the jokes and laughter were directed to the pretty poor train services in the UK.

There was no malice, but it was crass and unintelligent. Even though I personally did not feel offended, it was in an abysmally poor taste, and I was deeply disappointed that the manner in which this subject was presented. Perhaps I had expected more from Mr Fry. As I see it, the main problem was that Mr Yamaguchi’s life was not placed in context.

Mr Yamaguchi’s case was presented as if some accident had befallen him, such as being struck by lightening twice and having survived both without any negative effect. The bombs did not just fall from the sky. They were dropped. Mr Yamaguchi’s daughter, in an interview given to a newspaper, felt that such comments stressing luck or lack of it trivialized her father’s and others’ experiences. He and others who were in Hiroshima and Nagasaki when the bombs were dropped had suffered long-term health effects, sometimes inter-generational, and often faced discrimination and hardship. There was a decent article in the Independent titled How I survived Hiroshima – and then Nagasaki which the researchers for the programme would have come across while preparing for this programme. Had Mr Fry just added at the end, in his somewhat mischievous yet schoolmasterly manner, that what makes Mr Yamaguchi even more remarkable is the fact he lived a long life despite exposure to radioactivity which probably caused cancer and other ailments that he and others like him have suffered, then this kind of controversy would not have arisen. It would have been more in keeping with the programme’s style as well.

I think there is a merit in arguing that there should be no taboos when it comes to comedy, and that jokes ought to be treated as such. But jokes can be very difficult, especially when context is lacking. The most dangerous joke is made when someone is ignorant: it just doesn’t offend people, it exposes that person’s ignorance. We, as individuals, groups, societies and cultures, all have different tolerance levels and thresholds, and there are things we simply don’t joke about. For most Japanese people, making fun, or seeming to make fun of those who suffered from the bomb is beyond the limit. If QI / talkbackTHAMES had done proper research, and decided to broadcast cognizant of the likely perception, in an age where clips can be seen almost everywhere on the planet, then at least it can claim to explore the boundaries of speech and joke-making. However, it just seems to have brought to light their mere ignorance. For that reason, I felt disappointed rather than offended or angry.

There are differences between an individual person making a remark, and remarks made in a television programme. The BBC is bound to ofcom’s broadcasting codes, and its own editorial guidelines. Perhaps this section of QI fell short of Section 2 of the ofcom Broadcasting Code, and Section 5.4.38 of the BBC editorial guidelines.

If I were to find anything deeply objectionable about this whole story, then it would be this so-called apology. It states:

QI never sets out to cause offence with any of the people or subjects it covers. However on this occasion, given the sensitivity of the subject matter for Japanese viewers, we understand why they did not feel it appropriate for inclusion in the programme.

The authors understand that Japanese viewers did not feel it appropriate for [this material to be] inclu[ded] in the programme, but it may be reasonably assumed that the authors did not feel that the programme had contravened the guidelines, and they were justified in broadcasting the programme as it was.

Section 2 of the ofcom Broadcasting Code

In applying generally accepted standards broadcasters must ensure that material which may cause offence is justified by the context (see meaning of "context" below). Such material may include, but is not limited to, offensive language, violence, sex, sexual violence, humiliation, distress, violation of human dignity, discriminatory treatment or language (for example on the grounds of age, disability, gender, race, religion, beliefs and sexual orientation). Appropriate information should also be broadcast where it would assist in avoiding or minimising offence.

Section 5.4.38 of the BBC Editorial Guidelines

We aim to reflect fully and fairly all of the United Kingdom’s people and cultures in our services. Content may reflect the prejudice and disadvantage which exist in societies worldwide but we should not perpetuate it. In some instances, references to disability, age, sexual orientation, faith, race, etc. may be relevant to portrayal. However, we should avoid careless or offensive stereotypical assumptions and people should only be described in such terms when editorially justified.

In essence, this QI programme can be blamed for omitting to provide [a]ppropriate information that should also be broadcast where it would assist in avoiding or minimising offence. Also it may have to justify calling Mr Yamaguchi the unluckiest (or the luckiest) man on the planet, when it is arguable that such description can reasonably be construed as arising from careless or offensive stereotypical assumptions.

As I have not been personally offended, I do not feel a need to file a complaint. It was a very unfortunate occurrence, arising from lack of research and context. Hopefully it will lead to a better understanding between the two cultures and countries, not a futile stereotyping of Britain in Japan (which is happening in some quarters), and of Japan in Britain.

Addition: 25 January 2011

Apparently the BBC has deleted the clip from its YouTube channel.