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Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 January 2007, 13:56 GMT
Big Brother crashes into politics
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website

The power of Big Brother to turn people - even individuals who wear their ignorance like a badge of honour - into overnight celebrities in the UK is legendary.

Chancellor Gordon Brown
Brown has been dragged into Big Brother racism row

It can now add causing a diplomatic incident and damaging Britain's reputation abroad to its list of achievements.

That is thanks to the uproar over the alleged bullying and racism being inflicted on one of the contestants, Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty, by the likes of Jade Goody - whose fame was built on things such as saying she thought East Anglia was a foreign country.

It has led to the Indian media branding the programme Bigot Brother. And India's junior minister for external affairs, Anand Sharma, is considering a formal approach to the UK over the programme.

Serious problem

Gordon Brown, the prime-minister-in-waiting (and currently in India), has been engulfed by the uproar during the first day of his visit and moved quickly to distance Britain from the antics on the programme.

Shilpa Shetty
Ms Shetty has been the victim of alleged bullying and racism

He is there to promote relations between Britain and India, but revealed the issue had been raised with him repeatedly. He has been briefed on it, knowing it has been the subject of well over 10,000 complaints.

He said he wanted to reassure people that Britain "prides itself on tolerance and fairness".

Back in the UK one of his closest ministerial aides, Ed Balls, told the BBC's Daily Politics the antics on the programme were projecting an appalling image of Britain across the world.

"This is not simply a piece of fun - this is a problem," he said.

And, in the Commons, Tony Blair - who once publicly rode to the defence of a fictional Coronation Street character who had been wrongfully jailed - was eager to put a million miles between himself and this programme.

Vote Shetty

"I have not seen this particular programme so I cannot comment on it," he said (perhaps someone would like to send him a recording).

Tony Blair
Mr Blair distanced himself from programme
But he agreed "entirely with the principles" outlined by Labour MP Keith Vaz who condemned racism and xenophobia in the programme.

There has been something of a feeling of despair in Westminster that this programme has erupted onto the political, and now diplomatic, stage and might even threaten to damage Britain's reputation abroad.

Former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown has even suggested one way for the UK to salvage some of its reputation for tolerance would be to vote Miss Shetty the winner.

I agree that Shilpa is being bullied but I'm not sure about it being racism
Cat, London

He also said he doubted that the current furore would do any longlasting damage to the views of Britain in India.

That seemed to be a word of common sense in what is turning into one of those slightly surreal marriages of politics and popular culture.

But the inescapable fact is that a programme which was struggling in the ratings has ended up being discussed on the floor of the Commons, has prompted widespread debate about racism and modern Britain - and most remarkably of all dominated Gordon Brown's pre-premiership tour of India.

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