Why did she ever get a visa? That’s what so many people have demanded to know about Katie Hopkins, the English far-right figure who flouted quarantine rules – and broadcast it to her 263,000 Instagram followers – while reportedly waiting to join the cast of a celebrity version of Seven’s Big Brother.
There are tens of thousands of good, decent Australian citizens stuck overseas, unable to return home, and yet Hopkins is allowed in. Why? The answer is simple: It made good business sense, until it didn’t.
Seven is being coy about the whole saga, responding to media queries with a statement that “Katie Hopkins is not part of Big Brother VIP” and insisting that it and production company Endemol Shine “strongly condemn her irresponsible and reckless comments in hotel quarantine”.
Katie Hopkins mocking the safety rules upon her arrival in Australia. Credit:Instagram: @_katie_hopkins_
The statement from Seven doesn’t actually confirm Hopkins’ involvement in the show or her sacking; it’s actually a rather cleverly worded piece of obfuscation. But the fact Hopkins “is not part of” the production now doesn’t mean she was never part of it. Were that the case, Seven would surely be screaming it from the rooftops.
Controversial contestants are the lifeblood of shows like Big Brother; they are the conflict engines that spark drama within the show and watercooler conversations outside it. Hopkins has not been fired because she’s controversial; that’s why she was hired. She has been given the boot because the particular brand of controversy she brings has been deemed, at this moment, a threat to the network’s financial interests.
It’s a tightrope act, determining where the line between good publicity and bad lies. And with the rise of social media activism, staying upright has become harder than ever for the networks. Controversy sparks interest breeds viewers – or so is the hope. But when controversy sparks consumer backlash and potential boycotts of advertisers and sponsors, then the risk is that those advertisers and sponsors will withdraw from the program that has sparked the controversy. Worse still, they may withdraw from the network – and its enormously expensive Olympic Games coverage – entirely.
That’s what happened with Hopkins.
But it’s not all bad news for Seven. They got the attention they paid for; is there anyone in Australia who does not know now that there’s a celebrity version of Big Brother coming soon? Better yet, if Hopkins has breached her contract by bringing the show into disrepute (and how, you may well wonder, can anyone do that to a program that gifted the “turkey slap” to the world), it may have got what it paid for – and celebrity agent Max Markson estimates that could have been as much as $250,000, a fair fee for “the most hated woman in Britain, which is a terrific tagline” – without even having to pay for it.
It may seem especially reprehensible that a major media player would even consider deploying racism in search of ratings. But the reality is each of the commercial networks has done the same in the past.
Nine (the owner of this masthead) had a long-running relationship with Pauline Hanson on Today, which came to an end last July following a diatribe in which she labelled the locked-down residents of nine public housing towers in Melbourne drug addicts and alcoholics. Ten had its own Katie Hopkins moment last year when it pulled Pete Evans from the line-up of I’m a Celebrity after he posted to Instagram a cartoon featuring a Nazi symbol. And Seven has been accused of routinely playing to racial stereotypes in shows including My Kitchen Rules, setting up contestants from non-Anglo-Saxon backgrounds as villains.
Katie Hopkins in London in 2019.Credit:Luke Dray/Getty Images
But the risk-reward equation is changing. In a pitch to media buyers and advertisers last month, Ten asked: “How can we better promote and employ social justice, equality and inclusion? How can we represent all Australians and their stories? How can we raise the conversation, not lower the bar?”
In an email to staff last week, Seven chief executive James Warburton described as “inexcusable” and “embarrassing” a social media post that highlighted the skin colour of the three England players who missed penalties in the Euro final (on a story that was in fact about the racist abuse they had endured as a result).
“What happened was a terrible mistake, unacceptable and will not be tolerated,” Warburton wrote to staff. “A public apology was issued as soon as possible. The post was inexcusable, embarrassing and clearly does not meet the expectations of our company and the values that we’ve all worked so hard on over the past 12 months.”
Exactly how recruiting Hopkins sits alongside those expectations is hard to say. To return, though, to the question of “why” Hopkins was granted a visa, the answer, on the bureaucratic side of the fence, is that she was presumably deemed “a foreign national with critical skills or working in a critical sector in Australia”, under the Department of Home Affairs’ COVID-19 travel restrictions and exemptions.
That category includes anyone “delivering services in sectors critical to Australia’s economic recovery (such as financial technology, large scale manufacturing, film, media and television production and emerging technology), where no Australian worker is available”.
Really? There was no Australian capable of filling the role of loud-mouthed, far-right commentator? If only that were so.
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