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.