The BBC Is Spineless

Let’s look at what’s really going on.

Russell Brand and his guest on his BBC Radio 2 show – Jonathan Ross, who has his own show – initiated a prank on Fawlty Towers actor Andrew Sachs, who had been due to be a guest on Brand’s show, but had pulled out. Together they decided to conduct the interview on Sachs’ answering machine, but things rapidly went wrong after Ross shouted “he fucked your granddaughter”:

Things to bear in mind:

  • Brand had had a sexual relationship with Georgina Baillie
  • Georgina Baillie is a member of burlesque dance troupe Satanic Sluts
  • The programme was pre-recorded and not transmitted live
  • Andrew Sachs wasn’t asked for his permission to transmit the show as recorded, but did agree to redo the show the following week in person, and accepted both stars’ initial apologies

When the show was transmitted there were TWO complaints. The following 29,998 came almost entirely from the Mail on Sunday, which decided a week later to whip up a moral panic, appealing to the British instinct to find offence for other people (even if they aren’t offended). As a result Brand has been driven to resignation, as has BBC Radio 2 controller Lesley Douglas, and Jonathan Ross has been put on suspension without pay for 3 months. The BBC Trust has said:

The Trust is dismayed both that the offensive comments broadcast on the Russell Brand Show on 18 October fell so far short of audiences’ legitimate expectations, and by the deplorable intrusion in to the privacy of Mr Sachs and his granddaughter.

The transmission of these comments via a BBC Radio programme represents an abuse of the privilege given to the BBC to broadcast to its audiences.

On behalf of the BBC, the Trust offers a full and unreserved apology to Andrew Sachs, Georgina Baillie and the rest of his family. The Trust extends this apology to licence fee payers as a whole.

Hold on. To licence fee payers as a whole? It’s apologising to me, for what exactly? A couple of overly paid idiots who overstepped the mark with a colleague, and transmitting a show which barely anyone noticed? Isn’t that what ‘cutting edge’ comedy performers like Brand do ? Peter Tatchell puts things into perspective:

So far, nearly 30,000 members of the public have lodged complaints. How many of them have complained about the BBC’s tacit glorification and promotion of greed and nastiness in programmes like The Apprentice and The Weakest Link? Why don’t they kick up a fuss when the BBC gives airtime to religious fundamentalists who oppose equal rights for women, gay people and non-believers?

My point is that the public outcry is selective, as is the BBC’s heavy-handed response to Brand and Ross. It is totally out of proportion. A few silly, mindless quips have been elevated by mob instinct and moral panic into a supposed national scandal. It has knocked off the front pages the collapse of share prices, fuel poverty, house repossessions and a dozen other serious economic issues that are adversely affecting millions of Britons.

I couldn’t agree with him more. I may despise both Ross and Brand, but what was already a non-story has been manipulated into diverting our attention away from important issues, like how the recession is genuinely destroying people’s lives. Greg Dyke has a point when he says that the BBC’s desperation to keep ahold of Ross at all costs contributed to an unwarranted over-inflation of his ego. And Paul Gambaccini notes how absurd Lesley Douglas’ protection of Brand was, considering his extreme in-studio behaviour. But Dara O’Briain reminds us:

“We are now entering day six of man-has-his-feelings-hurt-gate. I stand by 100% any of the things we’ve ever said (on Mock the Week),” he said. “There’s no way we can ever do a show while thinking ‘Will David Davis MP approve of this?’ Not all shows are intended for all people.”

It’s a valid point. Did anyone really expect that listening to a Russell Brand radio show would be a genteel, sedate experience? If you don’t like Brand (and his reputation has been known worldwide for some time) don’t listen to him. He and Ross were called on their misbehaviour, they apologised and Sachs accepted their apology, yet now Tatchell again points out:

The BBC has apologised, condemning the two comics’ antics as “unacceptable and offensive”. This is rich coming from the BBC, which until not long ago allowed its music DJs to play records by reggae singers who encourage listeners to murder – yes, murder! – lesbian and gay people. Incitement to murder is a criminal offence, yet no BBC DJs were disciplined let alone prosecuted.

He’s right in identifying a serious flaw in the BBC’s acknowledgment of its public service remit in its selective apologies – here where it really isn’t due, where white, heterosexual, middle class sensibilities choose to be offended, and not at all when it gets it completely wrong, as in the example he cites. Brand and Ross’ general behaviour indeed sucks, but there have always been celebrities who have pushed the boundaries too far, none in my memory experiencing such penalties. If the BBC is going to produce cutting edge comedy there will always have to be risk-takers who will and must regularly make mistakes, although producer John Lloyd argues:

John Lloyd, the producer of Spitting Image who is also behind the Stephen Fry-fronted panel show QI, said he hoped the incident led to a reappraisal of how risk- taking television was defined.

“What passes for risk-taking in television today is showing people having sex on Big Brother. That’s not a risk – it’s just grubby,” he said.

And Ian Jack ties together the dilemma which the BBC really has to face:

Out of the militant ironies of satire came stand-up and its associated forms of reckless performing, elevated to an importance in Britain as nowhere else as both entertainment and social criticism. Mark Thompson and other BBC voices this week talked as though comedy had always depended on its “edginess” for its creativity; the days of Chaplin, the Marx Brothers and Dad’s Army might never have been. That view is as narrow as Hobbes’s. Worse, at least for the future of the world’s greatest public-funded broadcaster, is that edginess depends on the continual finding of new edges, breaking taboos and conventions that comprise ethical standards, which, however much they vary between generations, most of us hope will always be there.

The BBC can have one or the other; it has been greedy and desperate of it to try to have both.

But maybe they’re always going to have to walk that line and maybe always have instances of getting it wrong. Peter Tatchell’s right about the BBC’s craven hypocrisy, and the BBC should support its presenters, keep its failures in perspective and get a spine if it really is prepared to keep crossing this minefield. That it’s managed to so far has indeed resulted in ‘Allo ‘Allo, Dad’s Army as well as The Young Ones and Mock The Week. Tatchell is also dead right in advocating criticism, complaint, even condemnation of the BBC for what it does wrong, rather than for the mistakes it will inevitably make in walking down the complicated path of what it gets right. This is really a class-based political attack on the BBC and it’s pathetic that the corporation has caved in so feebly to it.

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2 responses to “The BBC Is Spineless

  1. That was a fantastic entry. Well balanced and easy to read and digest. I hope I don’t sound patronising but your writing is absolutely top quality and deserves affirmation and a wider audience.

    I think my initial reaction to this story was that I’ve never really rated either of them anyway and as a licence payer I was pleased to see they’d been flagged up as worthy of debate.

    That’s not to say I want the BBC to focus solely on safe (boring) presenters like Wogan and Titchmarsh. Nor do I expect the BBC to only produce shows I like. But I do expect quality control alarms to sound when we’re paying millions of pounds to a couple of guys to basically banter – idiotically- for an hour on a Saturday night. I mean hands up who likes Russell Brand (and do school kids pay licence fees nowadays?).

    Also, bearing in mind the BBC is, I think, the biggest media organisation in the World – it’s inevitable they are going to make mistakes. I think the mistake they’ve made here is probably inconsistency rather than taking the moral high ground.

  2. Pingback: BBC’s Political Correctness Obsession Harms Innocents « Cosmodaddy

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