Who’s watching?

Dawn Foster

It’s hard to work out who the intended audience for Sky History’s reality show The Chop was supposed to be. The channel itself seems pitched at middle-aged men who own too many books on Nazi Germany and Roman Egypt. The Chop aimed to find ‘Britain’s top woodworker’ by pitting contestants against each other in a series of challenges, perhaps using different historical carpentry methods. Regardless, those of us who missed the first episode last week will now never know, since Sky has been forced to pull the entire programme from its schedules, and delete all video clips of it, after receiving thousands of complaints from people (I was one of them) who’d seen a trailer featuring a contestant with white supremacist tattoos on his face.

Despite the channel’s preoccupation with Nazism and the Second World War, the meaning of the symbols seemed to have escaped the notice of the programme makers. The clip ­– a chummy, self-effacing interview with the comedian Lee Mack – was short, low quality, and focused on selling the contestant, Darren Lumsden (aka ‘The Woodman’), as a scary-looking yet happy-go-lucky chap. But the symbols were clearly visible: on his right cheek, the numerals ‘88’ in Fraktur font (used by white supremacists to mean ‘HH’, ‘Heil Hitler’, because H is the eighth letter of the alphabet); ‘23/16’ above his temples (the same alphanumeric code, meaning WP, ‘white power’); 14 on his scalp (a reference to the ‘fourteen words’ white supremacist slogan); and many others of less certain meaning but with a history of use as white supremacist signifiers. To have one hate symbol on your face may be regarded as a misfortune; to have two or more looks like carelessness.

Circling the ‘88’ in a screengrab, I asked Sky on Twitter on Tuesday if that was the ‘history’ angle to the programme. Rather than simply ignore me, or say they’d investigate, Sky tweeted in response:

Amongst the various numerical tattoos on his body, 1988 is the year of his father’s death. Darren’s tattoos denote significant events in his life and have no political or ideological meaning whatsoever. Amongst the various numerical tattoos on his body, 1988 is the year of his father’s death.

The patronising tone grated. More than that, it didn’t ring true: if, as Sky implied, they’d been aware of the way the tattoos could be misconstrued, shouldn’t they have provided some context for the clip? Other mysteries: why get a tattoo of the date of someone’s death to remember them by, rather than their name, say? And why in Fraktur font, of all things? It seemed far more likely that Lumsden was only asked about his tattoos once the public started putting questions the production team should have asked before he got anywhere near a camera. I did an online search to check the excuse Sky gave me, and in less than seven minutes was able to learn that Lumsden was born in 1979, his father in 1961, and not only had he not died in 1988 but he was registered to vote in Bristol from 2002 to 2011 and still lived at the same address.

After I tweeted those facts, Sky went silent, having spent the whole day frantically defending its programme and contestant. About five hours later, scores of defensive tweets were quietly deleted. ‘While we investigate the nature and meaning of Darren’s tattoos,’ the channel said, ‘we have removed the video featuring him from our social media, and will not be broadcasting any eps of The Chop until we have concluded that investigation. Sky HISTORY stands against racism & hate speech of all kinds.’

Yesterday, journalists from the Daily Mail and elsewhere sought out Lumsden Senior, who confirmed he had not died in 1988. That Lumsden lied about the death of his father should ring alarm bells that multiple inked instances of Nazi-adjacent code purportedly didn’t. The whole point of these numeric codes is to allow white supremacists to recognise each other while maintaining plausible deniability. Lumsden would have played it safer if he’d told Sky the ‘88’ was a tribute to his favourite Kylie Minogue song, ‘I Should Be So Lucky’, the first number one that year.

Since I first criticised Sky’s decision to broadcast a soft-soap interview with a man with several white supremacist face tattoos, my Twitter mentions have been flooded by hardened racists denying the right-wing meaning of any of the symbols while attacking me for callously disrespecting the memory of Lumsden’s dead father. The fact that he is alive and well doesn’t matter. Sky and Lumsden had stuck to the ‘no political or ideological meaning whatsoever’ line long enough. That’s a win for the white supremacists. They can play stupid, because they’ve already tricked their way into the spotlight.

Racism in the media usually is less overt: we don’t get to see the sausage being made in the factory, as we did here. The production company should have done due diligence when casting the show. Were there really so few candidates that a man with possibly racist facial tattoos was the only option? Were the people selecting the contestants so incurious that they didn’t ask Lumsden about the meaning of the numbers and symbols? Was there no one on the production team with any concerns about his appearance? Or were black and Jewish staff not able to raise concerns out of fear for their jobs? Why, once it became clear that a sizeable number of people who had viewed the promotional clips were appalled by what they saw, did Sky double down on Twitter, dismissing historians and journalists with more knowledge and better research skills than their staff, assuming the problem would melt away?

It seems that Lumsden and his tattoos ended up on TV either through a concatenation of naivety and incompetence, or because of a lack of proper structures for concerns to be raised, or because people knew precisely what they were putting on screen and were comfortable with it. None of these scenarios is especially palatable, but none can be ruled out until Sky and A+E Productions explain what happened, and apologise to those of us who received monumental levels of abuse and violent threats after Sky publicly dismissed us, before quietly deleting their tweets but not deigning to answer our questions about their processes.

Whatever the reason, it doesn’t matter as much as it should. Instances of racism in the media are becoming more, not less, frequent. Contrary to the right wing’s weasel words about ‘cancel culture’, British media culture is one of complicit racism and oppression. Extremist opinions on the right are espoused all the time, and only when they are at their most blatant do racist comments get even the slightest pushback. Terms like ‘woke warriors’ are used in the same way as Lumsden’s tattoos: to signal to the like-minded that they aren’t alone.


  • 23 October 2020 at 9:49am
    Marmaduke Jinks says:
    White supremacism is an ignorant, vile philosophy. It is not, however, illegal. Nor is the display of white supremacist tattoos.
    The only relevant question is: was the bloke any good at woodwork?

    • 23 October 2020 at 11:34am
      P Eluard says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      Narrator: Hate speech is, in fact, illegal.

    • 23 October 2020 at 11:42am
      peapod says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      there is more to good responsible broadcasting than just adhering to the law.

    • 23 October 2020 at 11:45am
      Marmaduke Jinks says: @ P Eluard
      Yes it is. Did this chap utter any hate speech?

    • 23 October 2020 at 12:34pm
      Joe Morison says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      If having 88 tattooed on his face doesn’t count as hate speech (he may as well have had a swastika), I don’t know what does.

    • 23 October 2020 at 2:55pm
      Marmaduke Jinks says: @ Joe Morison
      Well I don’t think it DOES count as hate speech, does it? Neither would a tattooed swastika.
      Poor choices, career-limiting, offensive but emphatically NOT illegal.

    • 23 October 2020 at 3:16pm
      Charles Evans says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      Just because white supremacism isn't necessarily illegal doesn't mean it gets a free pass.

      It would be quite possible for Sky to say "We don't support white supremacism and so we won't have white supremacist symbols on our programmes without context and examination". They'd be well within their rights to do that - this country, after all, has freedom of speech. That includes free speech for programme makers.

    • 23 October 2020 at 3:51pm
      Joe Morison says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      People should be free to be Nazis in private, but not in public. I don’t want public exhortations of extreme crimes against humanity whether from political or religious zealots, and a swastika (or 88) worn as a political symbol is precisely that.

      There was a time that a lofty liberal tolerance of the odd rightwing nutter was a reasonable strategy. But they are no longer a few lone oddballs, they are horribly organized and on the march. They need to be resisted with every tool at our command.

    • 23 October 2020 at 8:06pm
      Marmaduke Jinks says: @ Joe Morison
      Well possibly but if you start using every “tool at our command” you end up by asking questions like “Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?”

      I fear ostracism by either side.

    • 24 October 2020 at 7:56am
      Joe Morison says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      I think, ‘Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Nazi party?’ is a perfectly legitimate question to ask anybody entering anything. I’m not sure what you mean when you say, that you ‘fear ostracism from either side’, but I’m happy to be ostracised by Nazis and I believe all Nazis and unrepentant former Nazis should be ostracised.

    • 24 October 2020 at 9:11am
      Marmaduke Jinks says: @ Joe Morison
      I don’t see what anyone’s entirely legal political or moral beliefs has to do with their suitability to be on a television reality show, or to be an accountant or a baker or a rugby player or anything else.
      What I fear is the desire to deprive anyone with whom one disagrees of all aspects of life, including the right to make an honest living. It could be you or me next if our views or tattoos, are deemed unacceptable.
      We’ll have to agree to disagree I guess.

    • 24 October 2020 at 12:04pm
      Joe Morison says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      If someone adheres to Nazi beliefs in the privacy of their own home, they should be left alone; but once they join the party, or seek to intimidate others by displaying their hateful symbols, they have crossed the line from belief into action and have lost their right to be part of a civilized society.

    • 24 October 2020 at 12:54pm
      Marmaduke Jinks says: @ Joe Morison
      Yes, that’s the sort of attitude that prevailed in Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany and McCarthy’s USA.

      I deplore it.

    • 24 October 2020 at 7:18pm
      Terence Griffin says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      People maybe free, within the law, to tattoo swastikas on their faces but they have to live with the consequences of their obvious racism.
      Television companies are free, within the law, to air whatever images they choose, but they too have to live with the consequences of broadcasting obvious racist images.
      But am I alone in thinking that Marmaduke Jiffy’s persistent defence of civil liberty is not so an honest cry for freedom as a covert justification for all the sorts of freedom that inevitably have all sorts of victims?
      He must have been taught at school that our rights in society are always balanced by our social obligations. Doing whatever you like whenever you like is not, or ever has been, a definition of civil liberty.
      The behaviour of the television company is, unfortunately, totally unsurprising.

    • 25 October 2020 at 9:04am
      Joe Morison says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      No, it’s not (and it’s lazy to suggest it is). Under the first two regimes, there was no tolerance of having beliefs in the privacy of one’s own home - a mere suspicion of deviancy was enough bring exile and execution. And just because there is an equivalence between the horror of Stalin’s USSR and Hitler’s Germany, doesn’t mean there’s an equivalence between communism and Nazism. Communism is a beautiful theory, one of the most beautiful concerning the development and destiny of humanity ever created; the fact that we don’t yet seem ready for it, and that earlier attempts to impose it in ways its originators never envisaged were disastrous, does not change that fact. Nazism, in complete contrast, is one nastiest and most hateful visions of humanity yet produced. Lots of good people have been and are communists, I doubt there’s been a good Nazi since the very beginnings of the movement when some decent dim souls got swept up in the glowing rhetoric without seeing the filth beneath.

    • 25 October 2020 at 9:52pm
      Bob Beck says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      But is appearing on a reality [sic] show just another instance of making "an honest [sic] living"?

      Maybe my question is snobbish; or, worse yet, simply glib. But the qualifier was yours.

  • 24 October 2020 at 5:39pm
    jad says:
    @ Marmaduke Jinks

    So Nazism, and white supremacism, are simply points of view, like any other set of political beliefs, and 'who are we to make judgements?'

    Sanctimonious, or disingenuous, BS.

    • 24 October 2020 at 7:16pm
      Marmaduke Jinks says: @ jad

  • 25 October 2020 at 11:13pm
    staberinde says:
    Dawn Foster has done us all a great service in exposing this man and the liars making the television show.

    As for the commenters asserting his right to be a white supremacist with no consequence: nonsense. He has the right to enjoy freedom of conscience; not the right to respectability, employment, or a platform.

    People with disagreeable views may be found everywhere. They are teachers, nurses, bus drivers, accountants... It's perfectly fine for them to do their jobs and hold their views privately. But if they make their views public, they must risk the consequences (as do we all).

    The difficult part is in drawing the line. Nazis are of course beyond the pale; they should be fired and shunned. But not every case is so clear-cut.

    What about Labour members kicked out of the party for anti-Semitism? It would be right not to give them jobs, right?

    What of climate deniers?

    What of women who believe that transgender women aren't women, but something else?

    What of UKIP voters? Should they be denied work because migrant colleagues feel 'unsafe'? How about Brexit voters?

    Now imagine how you'd feel if you lost your job because people thought you were insufficiently patriotic (perhaps you don't know when the Queen's speech is broadcast at Christmas).

    Nazis are easy. Especially when they tell you they're Nazis. Everything else is difficult.

    Does denouncement count as proof? How old does a Facebook post need to be before it no longer haunts you?

    What applies to Nazis rarely generalises, I think.

  • 26 October 2020 at 1:56pm
    Rodney says:
    A&E does have a track record in this department, more as a result of greed than design, I think. Its US reality series Duck Dynasty made bucketloads of money for the network and household names of its protagonists. Several of the protagonists became publicists and popularisers of white supremacy, racism, gun-toting, right-wing extremism and Donald Trump.

  • 26 October 2020 at 2:01pm
    Rodney says:
    I shall accept your argument as valid Marmaduke, when a black contestant with "Kill the Pigs" tattooed on his face is a contestant on an entertainment show. Until then your defence of 88, WP etc is a vile attempt to shore up the "rights" of hate-filled white supremacists to spread their slime through our society. But perhaps you're just trolling.

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