Hasan Suroor

LONDON: The future of the Celebrity Big Brother show was thrown in doubt on Thursday after one of its major sponsors pulled out as a direct result of the row over the alleged racist bullying of Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty by some of her housemates.

Carphone Warehouse, which runs Britain's biggest chain of mobile phone stores and has been sponsoring the programme since 2004, said it was suspending its sponsorship worth an estimated £3 million a year, "with immediate effect" following allegations of racism towards Ms. Shetty.

The bombshell came amid mounting pressure on Channel 4 to intervene and halt the show's slide into further embarrassment with more than 20 MPs signing a Commons motion, sponsored by the Labour Asian MP Keith Vaz to demand "urgent action."

The London Mayor Ken Livingstone suggested revoking its licence for tarnishing London's image.

However, the bad news for "save Shilpa" campaigners was that the media regulator Ofcom, which has received more than 27,000 complaints, refused to "rush into judgement" with its chief executive Ed Richards saying that there would be "no kangaroo court" conducted by Ofcom though he acknowledged that what was happening was "very serious."

He told journalists that Ofcom was "monitoring" the situation and would write to Channel 4 shortly.

Channel 4 admitted that all was not well in the Big Brother house, acknowledging that there had "undoubtedly been a cultural and class clash between her [Ms. Shetty] and three of the British females in the house" but insisted that the actor had not been subjected to any overt racial abuse. "Unambiguous racist behaviour and language is not tolerated under any circumstances in the Big Brother house. Housemates are constantly monitored and Channel 4 would intervene if a clear instance of this arose," it said in a statement.

The statement came after Ms. Shetty said she believed she was being targeted because she was an Indian. "It is, I'm telling you," she told fellow housemate Cleo Rocos after a blazing row with Jade Goody, winner of a previous Big Brother series, who accused her of "lying" and told her to "go back to the slums" during a heated argument over chicken cubes.

Ms Shetty said: "I'm representing my country. Is this what today's UK is? Scary. It's quite a shame really."

A spokesperson for Ms. Goody admitted that it appeared "Jade dislikes Shilpa" but said she did not believe "race is the reason."

Tory leader David Cameron condemned the programme saying that though he had not seen it "from what I read it sounds very distasteful."

The mayor of London accused Channel 4 of deliberately broadcasting the more provocative bits in order to boost its ratings which have hit the roof in the past two days.

"The attitude we have seen taken towards Shilpa Shetty is not only wrong but is the exact opposite to the approach that London takes towards the different cultures that exist in our city," Mr Livingstone said.