On Big Brother (and Off Again): On Ellis Hillon and Outrage

Ellis Hillon is a 20-year-old from Glasgow. On 14th September 2018, she appeared as a contestant on the UK version of the reality TV show, Big Brother. The very next day, she was removed from the programme after the following tweet of hers was discovered¹:

While other tweets of hers were also considered controversial, this one appears to be the main point of contention, and the one that lead to her being evicted from the show.

In the 2000s, Big Brother (BB) was a hit show on Channel 4. That time has now passed. For the past eight years, BB has resided on Channel 5, that famed broadcaster of bumfluff television. Big Brother is dying. With its popularity waning, the show’s contract with Channel 5 ends this year and looks unlikely to be renewed. A rise in viewership could be the difference between life — a new contract on 5 or elsewhere— or being laid to rest in the graveyard of TV shows past. To get viewers, BB needs headlines. And what generates headlines? Controversy. Outrage. Racism.

So let’s perform a thought experiment. Imagine you’re a producer on the show. I’ve made you stereotypical: your sense of ethics is…questionable. It’s months before the show’s final season begins. You’re vetting potential contestants. Ellis Hillon is brought to your attention. Sure, she’s playing up in her audition video as most applicants do. Yet she displays a confidence that belies her 19 years. She fits the image of the stereotypical mouthy Glaswegian (even describing herself as a “typical wee Glesga ned”). BB thrives on contestants who are brash and argumentative, who’ll get drunk and launch foul-mouthed tirades at their fellow housemates. Hillon ticks a number of boxes. She goes on your short list.

But then her past is brought to your attention. Four years ago, she posted the tweet above. What now? Should she come off the short list? Or move further up it? This situation, in some ways, is ideal. If you put her in the show and the tweet stays a secret, you’ve got a good contestant. If the media do find out about it, the show gets a ton of attention, grabbing headlines when they’re most needed. You’ve also got some degree of plausible deniability: she has tweeted thousands of times since then. We can’t possibly check them all. And she deleted it, how were we supposed to know? (when she deleted it is, so far, unclear). If you then remove her from the programme, you’ve done ‘the right thing’. The show gets a lot of publicity with just a small amount of criticism.

Imagine there’s a viewership tipping point, a particular audience number that could be the difference between the show’s survival and its demise. The Hillon controversy could attract non-viewers and potentially convert enough of them into fans that the show could hit that target². In a weird (and admittedly unlikely) way, Hillon’s tweet could be the difference between you cashing a producer’s salary for another few years and you looking for another job. What would you choose?

(from Channel 5’s official site)

There are other questions in this tale. When was that tweet deleted? And who screencapped it? Did someone read it back in 2014 and think, ‘I’ll save that just now in case I need to discredit her later’? Did news of her potential appearance on the show leak out and someone thought, ‘She’ll go back and delete that now. I can’t let that happen’? Or maybe we should ask: who is most likely to have searched her Twitter feed, expect her to delete that tweet, and have most to gain from it being seen by the press? Big Brother, that’s who. The next step from benefitting from the news is orchestrating it. That answer might seem unlikely and conspiratorial, but the incentives are obvious.

Now let’s move on to the other character in this tale: Ellis Hillon herself. Do you have any sympathy for her? Many would quickly answer with a firm ‘No’. A racist is a racist³. She knew that tweet was going out in the public sphere. She got what she deserved. But does your opinion change when you realise she was only 15 when she wrote it? Is that old enough to be tried as an adult in the court of public opinion?

I can confidently announce that I wasn’t writing racist comments when I was 15. But I can say that because there’s no evidence either way. I was 15 in 1994. No Twitter or Facebook, no email access, no way to permanently record my opinions. I could’ve been the biggest child-racist ever, scrawling offensive messages over everything I could lay my hands on. None of it would have survived. People — children —nowadays live in this strange new world where most communication is public and archived, saved as part of the permanent record.

Let’s perform another thought-experiment. This time you’re in Hillon’s shoes. You were excited to get onto Big Brother, to be on TV, to gain some degree of fame. You got it, but really not how you expected to. Abuse is being hurled your way, online and off. Because of this story, your employer is considering firing you. Imagine they do. How good are your job prospects now, when so many recruiters will copy a name from a job application and paste it into Google?

You meet someone new. You know that, if they Google you, the first few pages of results will be about how you’re a racist. Whether that happens tomorrow or in ten years, the outcome is still the same. There’s nothing you can do to make those stories go away. They are a black mark against your name, a cloud likely to follow you for the rest of your life. All because of a single message you wrote, when you were just a kid.

How do you feel?

(¹ There’s no unblurred version of that tweet that I can find)formatting footnotes)

(² Strictly Come Dancing is much more popular than BB, but it pulled in a extra million viewers after a married dancer and a celebrity with a girlfriend were caught kissing on camera

(³ In the unlikely event of this post getting more than 60 readers, there will undoubtedly be someone who’ll claim that Hillon never used a racist term, simply a shortening of ‘Pakistani’ that’s only given tone by its reader. That argument is irrelevant to this post, as it focuses on popular opinion, and the majority see it as a racist term)