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?