Teachable moments from the Brand/Ross saga



There are several interesting thoughts to be drawn from the furore surrounding the complaints made to the BBC about Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand.

1. First of all, without the Daily Mail‘s intervention, there would be no story. Of the 30,000 or so complaints made about the broadcast, 29,998 or so resulted from the Daily Mail commentary. This is the same Daily Mail, remember, that aggressively pursues individuals in the public eye that it does not like, even when the story is untrue – until absolutely forced to retract the story and apologise. There’s a chapter in Flat Earth News about this. Read it! This is also the same Daily Mail that today prints racy photos and details of an interview with Georgina Baillie, in which she dishes the dirt on her relationship with Brand.

2. Secondly, all the newspapers and other news organisations relentlessly pursuing this story and baying for the heads of Brand and Ross and various BBC executives are in competition with the BBC. Does it suit News Corporation to see the Beeb take a good kicking? You bet.

3. Georgina Baillie, whose privacy you could say had been invaded by the Brand broadcast, has engaged the services of Max Clifford, and is not wasting the opportunity to get her face in the papers. As one of the two supposedly injured parties in this affair, she’s putting a pretty brave face on it, as this photo set from the Telegraph shows. There are representational issues here: how she was originally represented; how she employs someone to represent her; and how she chooses to represent herself.

4. The real meat in this sandwich, though, is the position of the BBC and the question of what it is for. Let’s remind ourselves of the wording of the BBC Charter.

The BBC exists to serve the public interest.
The BBC’s main object is the promotion of its Public Purposes.
4. The Public Purposes
The Public Purposes of the BBC are as follows—
(a) sustaining citizenship and civil society;
(b) promoting education and learning;
(c) stimulating creativity and cultural excellence;
(d) representing the UK, its nations, regions and communities;
(e) bringing the UK to the world and the world to the UK;

The hardest one, I think, is 4(d) “Representing the UK, its nations, and communities.”

Your interpretation of this depends on your interpretation of the word representing. It’s a question that often arises in politics: are MPs obliged to represent (all of) our views to Parliament; or are they elected to act in our best interests, even if their view of those interests conflicts with our views?

How does the BBC represent the whole of the UK? One way would be to try to create entertainments that please most of the people, most of the time. As Abraham Lincoln said, “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” In the heyday of mass entertainment, circa 1978, the BBC did a pretty good job of entertaining most of the people some of the time. The Morecambe and Wise Show, for example, was enjoyed by a vast audience. Something like the new Doctor Who, on the other hand, typically reaches a fraction of that audience.

The BBC knows very well that “the audience” no longer exists as a single, amorphous entity; we can thank the academic discipline of Media Studies for that realisation. The audience is fractured, splintered, scattered across platforms and technologies that no single institution could ever hope to reach. But the BBC is obliged to try, which is why we have CBBC, BBC One, Two, Three, Four, Radios 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, the Asian Network, BBC Wales, Parliament, News 24, BBC Online. It’s why we have Earth: The Climate Wars on the same channel as Top Gear, why we have Strictly Come Dancing on the same channel as Little Dorrit.

And what about this part of the Charter:

6. The independence of the BBC
(1) The BBC shall be independent in all matters concerning the content of its
output, the times and manner in which this is supplied, and in the
management of its affairs.

Independent? With the Prime Minister (neatly deflecting press interest from his economic crisis) weighing in with his opinion? With every other news organisation in the country heaping pressure upon it in a frenzy of manufactured moral outrage?

In the BBC Charter, the unoffended audience for Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross are just as important as the audience for Last Chance to See, the Last Night of the Proms or Last of the Summer Wine. When you operate under such a constitution, you don’t get to choose. It’s a little like the issue in the US election about the “real” America, which Palin/McCain say that they represent, whereas the America represented by Obama is portrayed as “not real” or a lesser America.

Offensive things are said all day every day across the BBC. Simon Amstell, Russell Brand, Jonathan Ross etc. are specifically employed because they “represent” a particular demographic who likes edgy and racy humour. Edgy is often used pejoratively, but the fact is, you can’t be edgy without sometimes slipping over the edge and “crossing the line” as Brand put it in his apology. As I write this, I’m watching Simon Amstell tirelessly belittling the minor celebrities who appear on Never Mind the Buzzcocks. His entire act consists of putting people down in public. Offended? Why not complain?


6 thoughts on “Teachable moments from the Brand/Ross saga

  1. Dan

    That is how Never Mind The Buzzcocks has always been though, even back when Mark LeMar was doing it.

    I think that if the Daily Mail think they can do better than Ross they should start the ‘Friday Night with Quinten Letts’ show. How Dull would that be.

  2. On the following week’s Russell Brand Show, Simon Amstell was co-host. He said: “I don’t like ethnic minorities.’ It was a joke – and, in the context of the show, which was being listened to by the Daily Mail, very funny. Should the BBC now suspend Simon Amstell? If not, why not? And if not, it suggests that the suspending of Ross/Brand for their less offensive words than Amstell’s and the BBC’s acceptance of Brand’s/Douglas’s resignations is wrong.

  3. Juno, it winds me up when people start comments with “Um,” as if I’ve missed some kind of point.

    The BBC knows when they employ the Amstells and the Brands (and in the past the Kenny Everetts, Danny Bakers etc.) that they’re going to cross the line occasionally – which is why the failure of editorial control is a more crucial issue. Whether it’s done over the phone or on air is irrelevant. It wasn’t the phonecall, but the broadcast of the phonecall that got people in trouble.

  4. Dan

    I used to listen, almost religiously, to the radio station Kerrang! for a DJ called Tim Shaw. Now, the things he did on this programme, The Asylum, surpassed (by ten-fold) what Brand and Ross have done. Famously (to the listeners atleast) Tim Shaw and his assistant, the aptly named Nobholder, broke into his bosses house and proceeded to graffiti obscene words and pictures all over his house. Tim recieved a 2 show ”suspension” but all was forgotten. He also phoned up old, none famous, people and ”harassed” them in a segment called ”Pop-round for a poo” where he had to persuade random people from a phone book to let him use their toilet. The studio was also more often than not filled with strippers, glamour-models, dwarfs, ( insert odd/obscene people here… ) However he never got in any particular trouble (bragging his highest phone-in complaint rota of a massive 5), the odd suspension here and there, but other than that… he got away with it and was popular with all his audience. This was however until he got moved to the breakfast slot. About 3 months in to his new show, The Morning After, he got sacked for Miss-holding a competition. The odd thing is that in all his time DJ-ing The Asylum he never once held a competition fairly or correctly.

    Anyway, I now no longer know what I am talking about so I shall wrap it up.
    In my opinion, Ross and Brand should never have been suspended, because in reality what they did wasn’t that bad. Perhaps it was morally wrong. But the fact that it was a show by the two of them you should be expecting such things. Similar things are said, or suggested on Friday night with Jonathan Ross. And Russell Brand’s Ponderland is just full of what can only be described as crap, BUT NO-ONE CARES!
    Tim Shaw got away with it (largely) because it was the expected. Luckly he never got reported on by the Daily Mail. Otherwise his DJ-ing career would have been over earlier than it was. (it was infact The Sun who got him sacked, but no-one likes them anyway)

    God, I am loosing my faith in The Daily Mail, A Coup by me is in order me thinks.

  5. Vicky

    I totally agree with RFM.
    So much attention has been paid to Brand and Ross for being offensive but in reality that is a big part of what they are paid for.
    It is the producers and editors job to make sure only the appropriate stuff reaches the airwaves and when you consider the fact that Andrew Sachs actually rang and asked the producers not to include the phone calls in the shows, several days before it aired, you have to agree they couldn’t have been doing their jobs very effectively.

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