On Tuesday 19 January 2016, BBC Three broadcast an hour-long documentary entitled ‘Adam Pearson: Freak Show’.

‘Adam Pearson: Freak Show’

contentimage_image942On Tuesday 19 January 2016, BBC Three broadcast an hour-long documentary entitled ‘Adam Pearson: Freak Show’. It was produced for the BBC by Betty TV and showed Adam Pearson, a man with neurofibromatosis, going on a personal journey to explore the American freak show industry.

Changing Faces has serious concerns that this film may have caused serious damage to the campaign for ‘face equality’, potentially legitimising bullying and name-calling, and thus setting the campaign for equality for people with facial disfigurements back by several years. We were not briefed by the BBC or Betty about the programme before it was broadcast.

We have received complaints and messages of concern from a number of people who live with neurofibromatosis and other conditions. They felt stigmatised and targeted by the programme, and believe they are more likely to be the subject of cruel taunts and offensive nicknames, on public transport, for example, as a result.

Colleagues in other organisations, including The Neuro Foundation, have received similar complaints. The Neuro Foundation has issued its own statement but has strongly supported Changing Faces in our actions since the programme was broadcast.

The presenter of the film, Adam Pearson, has a long standing relationship with Changing Faces and has been a prominent advocate over many years. After the programme aired and as the full extent of its impact became apparent, our Chief Executive, Dr James Partridge met with Adam to explain our concerns.

As a result of this meeting, Changing Faces has decided upon a number of key actions.


The Chief Executive will write to Tunde Ogungbesan, Head of Diversity and Inclusion, Alison Walsh, Disability Lead, and Asif Hassan, Commissioning Executive at the BBC, to provide further detail and evidence of the offensive nature of ‘Adam Pearson: Freak Show’, and to seek assurances that future commissions will consider more carefully the potential impact on issues that relate to disfigurement.

We will draw attention to:

Offence: To describe an individual with an unusual appearance, whether through an injury, medical condition or other cause as a ‘freak’ is deeply offensive, irrespective of whether or not some individuals in the programme describe themselves as such. The film failed to make this point and lacked any view countering that of the presenter’s.

Inaccuracy: References were made throughout the film to Joseph Merrick (1862-1890), colloquially known as ‘The Elephant Man’, with the implicit suggestion that the condition which caused his unusual appearance was neurofibromatosis. Only once in the show did a voiceover acknowledge that medical experts now agree that Merrick had Proteus Syndrome, not neurofibromatosis

Disrespect: Historians agree that Joseph Merrick had little option but to offer himself to the owner of a Leicester music hall in order to earn an income and so escape the workhouse. Although he was paraded and ridiculed mercilessly, he stood his ground proudly. He detested the name he was given and everything that went with the human circus – and to suggest differently is a great disservice to his memory

Title: ‘Adam Pearson: Freak Show’ is the latest in a line of documentaries made by Betty Television all of which have sensationalist, offensive titles. Previous examples include ‘The Undateables’, ‘The Ugly Face of Disability Hate Crime’, and ‘Beauty and the Beast: The Ugly Face of Prejudice’. Whilst Betty Television claim to produce ‘provoking’ material, it is concerning that mainstream broadcasters continue to commission programmes with such offensive titles.

Betty TV

The Chair of Trustees and Chief Executive of Changing Faces will write to the joint Managing Directors of Betty TV to seek a senior-level meeting to explain our ongoing concerns about their output and the titles of their films.

It is our view that television companies have social and corporate responsibilities as well as commercial imperatives and Changing Faces will publicly criticise companies whose titles or activities we believe are prejudicial to the lives and prospects of people with disfigurements – and directly counter to the aims of our campaign for face equality.

Recent examples include Powwownow’s ‘Avoid the Horror’ adverts, Mind Candy’s Moshi Monsters ‘Freakface’ and our successful complaint against Jeremy Clarkson’s comments on BBC’s Top Gear in 2012.

Guidelines and standards

Changing Faces reaffirms its commitment to standing up to facial prejudice and discrimination wherever it appears. The approach will be without fear or favour, robustly challenging face-ist programmes, titling and content.

In addition, we will consider how we work with all broadcasters and film makers in future, and develop new guidelines and standards which we will publish in April 2016. These will include case studies of this programme and others to inform members of the media about the responsible use of language when covering or reporting issues related to disfigurement.

We recognise that human interest stories are the bedrock and foundation of good documentary television, and the light that responsibly-produced films can shine on issues around disfigurement can be enormously helpful. That’s why, at every opportunity, we will work with and support documentary makers who commit to respecting and representing the fundamental values of face equality in their production.

In summary, this means respecting the following principles

  • Don’t assume you know about the experience of disfigurement or that all the information you need is already covered in existing disability or disfigurement policies
  • Consider whether your coverage of disfigurement is based on stereotypes and be creative about what you could do differently
  • Engage with Changing Faces in creative ways before you proceed with a programme about disfigurement
  • Think about the language you use in your film or programme. Consult Changing Faces’ broadcaster guidelines for advice.

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