Sometimes I’m glad I’m me. When my son asked me about a joke he’d heard some older boys telling (see left), I gave him the long answer. “There are different kinds of diabetes. One tends to affect younger people and is genetic; the other happens to anyone but more in larger, older people. Both are serious, so it’s not a very good joke.”
Humourless? Pitched to high for an 8-year-old? Maybe. But a week later, he was in a hospital bed, being asked by the doctor: “have you ever heard of diabetes?” “Yes, there’s this joke, but Mummy explained…”
Suddenly the diabetes jokes are everywhere. I’ve described trying to challenge them as an endless game of Whack-A-Mole. I’m learning to pick my battles but I lost my sense of humour badly recently over two jokes in the BBC’s EastEnders. Within a couple of months, a child character with cystic fibrosis “joked” about getting diabetes from eating biscuits and another character said: “If the kids don’t give themselves diabetes, it’s not a good party, is it?”
Facts aren’t a good defence against humour, but it might help to explain that around half of people with cystic fibrosis may develop CFRD (cystic fibrosis related diabetes) because of their condition. With reference to the second incident “kids” almost exclusively don’t get diabetes from lifestyle choices, and if they did, is it really that funny?
Full disclosure. I used to work at the BBC. I sat on the Diversity Committee for Drama, Entertainment and Children’s programming. I set up workshops to promote on and off screen diversity, forged links with disability organisations, the list goes on. I KNOW how much the BBC cares about this stuff, how tight the guidelines are on what you can and can’t say. The BBC is staffed by people like me, who attempt to educate, who give their children the worthy answer to school yard jokes.
That’s what gets me. Why is it alright to joke about diabetes in a way that it isn’t about other conditions and disabilities?
My brave, talented child will undoubtedly achieve in life but he now has the burden of drawing blood ten times a day, injecting himself six times, coping with highs and lows, weighing or assessing everything that passes his lips, dealing with the shadow of complications. It’s an extraordinary, parallel world.
But contemplating that his condition is perceived as a joke, wrongly synonymous with obesity? That’s when I knew I’d fallen down a rabbit hole. And that Queen Beeb, paragon of worthiness, is cackling too? That’s grotesque: it’s beyond a joke.
Ofcom cleared the BBC of the EastEnders complaints. The BBC’s editorial guidelines prohibit content which causes offence or harm without a strong justification, so how Ofcom reached its decision I’m not sure. The BBC has promised to work closely with diabetes charities in the future: a tentative positive.
But I can’t help thinking that ignorance had the last laugh.
My name’s not Bob…