Merlin From ‘Big Brother’ Is Finally Giving Us All The Details Of His On-Air Refugee Protest

“It was about disrupting that mainstream media phenomenon to deliver a message — and to make people question the whole concept of reality TV."

In 2004, the Howard government’s refugee policy was ironclad and brutal (sound familiar?) with conditions at the detention centre on Nauru a huge area of concern. The inhumane treatment of refugees sparked massive national debate — and weirdly, some of this debate revolved around a Big Brother contestant.

You probably remember the moment back in June 2004 when Big Brother housemate Merlin Luck was evicted and to the shock of the audience (and to the frustration of host Gretel Killeen) he performed a silent protest on live television. Even now, it’s the most staggering and unexpected thing ever to happen on reality TV in Australia, which until then operated in a bubble disconnected from the real world.

More than ten years after the fact, Merlin has spoken to about his decision to protest at the live show and what the wrath of the Channel Ten producers was really like. In case you were wondering, it was not spontaneous, and Merlin had always planned to make “a statement that putting 14 people in a mansion and plying them with alcohol isn’t reality”.

“It was about disrupting that mainstream media phenomenon to deliver a message — and to make people question the whole concept of reality TV — and question what’s really important,” he said.

Before entering the house, Merlin had sewn the ‘FREE TH REFUGEES’ sign into the shirt he wore when he entered the house and nervously hoped that security hadn’t felt it when they patted him down. Although Gretel was visibly irritated with the protest at the time, Merlin says that since then she’s said that she agreed with his statement and regretted not being more supportive.

The responses from the security guards and producers were a little different. “I remember as I got dragged off the stage by two security guards, one of them saying ‘What you just did is incredible. It’s going to mean a lot to many people. I’m so proud of you’ and then the other security guard told him to ‘shut up mate’,” he said.

“On the one hand they got the best ratings of the season and weeks of PR. On the other had they lost control, which is any producer’s worst nightmare. I remember the executive producer being exasperated in the green-room afterwards. He was almost yelling that ‘you should have told us … we could have worked with you on this … we would have supported you’… The whole point was to hijack the show and deliver a message — not to orchestrate a fake protest in cahoots with the producers.”

Merlin continued to protest for refugee rights after he left the Big Brother house, but he says he wasn’t surprised by the polarising reaction to his sentiment at the time (or even now, judging by the Facebook comments on our own video of the protest). “To me that encapsulates the broader response that I knew was coming. I didn’t do this to be popular,” he says.

“I did it because I believed in questioning our vapid preoccupation with reality TV — and wanted to disrupt that with a message on an issue I believe is important.”

You can read the full interview here.