Brand & Ross: there’s nothing more to see here, folks

by Stephen Tall on October 31, 2008

For the second night running, BBC2 Newsnight’s lead item was the fall-out from Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross’s mis-firing jokes against Andrew Sachs. For the second morning running, BBC Radio 4 Today Programme’s lead item was the fall-out from Russell Brand blah blah blah.

I know the Beeb feels the need to self-abase itself, and star interviewers are never happier than giving their bosses a hard time on flagship current affairs shows – but this is a ridiculously disproportionate over-the-top, over-hyped, over-reaction. So while Tory and Labour MPs work out how they can jump on the BBC-should-commit-mass-hara-kiri bandwagon I’m pleased to see the Lib Dems’ Don Foster adopt an entirely common sense tone:

Many people were offended by the antics of Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross who have both been dealt with appropriately. But for this to lead to the loss of one of the BBC’s most talented producers is hugely disappointing. Lesley Douglas [Radio 2’s controller] has made an enormous contribution to British radio and we have still seen no evidence that she was responsible for the failings that led to the show being broadcast.

“This resignation seems to have more to do with satisfying the media feeding frenzy than in working out what went wrong and ensuring it doesn’t happen again. The BBC has the impossible task of trying to appeal to all parts of the British audience. We should all think long and hard about what will happen to many of the wonderfully innovate BBC programmes, which many of us take for granted, if producers are no longer prepared to take risks.”

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This is a real shambles. An estimated 400,000 people listened to the programme. 2 complained.

Regardless of whether they were out of order or not (they were in my view), it was a complete tabloid hissy fit of pathetic proportions.

The BBC should not have accepted the producer’s resignation and stood firm in the face of middle england’s shameful stoning.

by whelan on October 31, 2008 at 10:49 am. Reply #

Another comment (Don’s) that ignores the potentially criminal act Brand and Ross were engaged in.

If I sat down tonight and phoned someone up four times in fairly short succession to leave mocking messages about how I’d slept with their grand-daughter I don’t think anyone would regard it as anything other than unacceptable behaviour that at least merited reporting to the police.

If you were my employer and I was doing it on your time then it would be pretty clear gross misconduct.

It’s that use of the phone that takes it beyond a matter of taste and decency. Had Brand for example just said “Andrew Sachs isn’t coming on the show, probably because I slept with his grand-daughter” it would have been tasteless (and arguably defamatory if not true) but not merited the controversy that has been caused.

What it’s not is a matter of taste so whether 2, 0 or 45,000 people complained isn’t relevant.

The BBC have subtly spun this issue to get away from the real point about their lack of control of their workers.

by Hywel Morgan on October 31, 2008 at 11:13 am. Reply #

Sachs didn’t complain to the Police. Even if he had, I very much doubt the case would have got as far as a magistrate.

Indeed, a prompt apology from Brand and Ross, and someone senior in the Beeb, should have been the end of the matter.

I’ve gone into my views on why this turned into a tabloid firestorm on my blog…

by Chris Keating on October 31, 2008 at 12:01 pm. Reply #

Of course the BBC’s current and prospective political masters (in the shape and form of the Labour and Conservative parties) are outraged at the way the media narrative has been distracted from their inability to deal with the economy and the ongoing scandal of their sucking up to oligarchs in exchange for favours!

No, using a public broadcast outlet to ring up a poor defenseless old man about his family affairs is far, far worse than how the potential livlihood of every inhabitant of the nation is affected by the potential corruption of decision-makers in official office.

Or just maybe at some subliminal level our concern has been piqued by a more tangible instance of bad judgement by prominent members of our society.

by Oranjepan on October 31, 2008 at 12:05 pm. Reply #

Agreed the coverage was OTT. Lead item on News at Ten?! Madness. I think the fact that there was an accompanying video (unusual for a radio programme) meant the story was bumped up the running order.

Has it been established that the calls were actually recorded on Sachs’ phone and were not simply “pretend” ansaphone messages which were broadcast?

In any case, the producer did actually play the messages down the phone to Sachs when he was on the end of the phone and asked if he was all right with them being broadcast. OK, Sachs said “not really” but there are not many nuisance messages left on ansaphones where someone rings up to speak to the recipient to ask if he/she is all right with them.

by Paul Walter on October 31, 2008 at 1:09 pm. Reply #

“If you were my employer and I was doing it on your time then it would be pretty clear gross misconduct.”

It’s different if your employer is sanctioning it on the basis that your employer believes that the other party is going to act in similar faith. Do we really have to pretend that it isn’t a different set of rules for celebrities? If Andrew Sachs wanted to use the same rules as the rest of us, he could, and then the BBC would likely had no choice whatsoever but to do what it has done anyway.

by Lee Griffin on October 31, 2008 at 2:19 pm. Reply #

Clearly, Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand are two deeply unattractive people. They are crude, puerile, egotistical braggarts who have done much between them to lower the tone not just of broadcasting but of popular culture generally.

I do, however, recognise that millions of people enjoy their shows, so I cannot complain that the BBC gives them airtime.

What does concern me is their penchant for humiliating and abusing innocent people in order to extract cheap laughs. This is the stuff of the primary school playground. It is juvenile, it is cruel, is is deeply anti-social. The BBC should not be broadcasting it or legitimising it in any way.

And it isn’t just Ross and Brand who do this. It is the whole purpose of “reality” TV, and that sickening voyeurism fest, “Big Brother”. The days when comedy reached the standards of “Monty Python” or Peter Cook and Dudley Moore are long gone.

It’s time decent people stood up to this trash.

Three cheers for Bruce Forsyth, who upbraided Ross for his foul language and his obsessional interest in male genitalia.

by Sesenco on October 31, 2008 at 2:27 pm. Reply #

Brucie? Some of us have slightly better memories than to applaud his hypocrisy on this.

by Oranjepan on October 31, 2008 at 2:52 pm. Reply #

I disagree with most of these comments. I think that Brand and Ross is a huge story because it is symptomatic of how the BBC has lost its way. Just issuing the standard “we’ll tighten up procedures to ensure it doesn’t happen again” is really not going to cut it this time. Mark Thompson strikes me as being completely out of his depth.

by Laurence Boyce on October 31, 2008 at 3:17 pm. Reply #

The ridiculous scale of this media driven back lash, which has spawned debate in Parliament and some ridiculous debate akin to the downfall of society, has turned this into a farce. That’s a shame in many ways as what they did was bully an old man and try to pass that off as entertainment and it does warrant criticism. I don’t think anyone can ever claim that sort of conduct is acceptable.
I agree entirely with Hywel Morgan when he says that if any of us phoned up a 78yr old man and left those same sort of messages it would be considered grossly unacceptable and may possibly wind up in Police involvement. I find Ross’s sneering little line of ‘he’s the poor man sitting at home sobbing over his answer machine…’ as the nastiest sort of playground bullying. They did it simply because they thought they were untouchable. I’m delighted they’ve been knocked right off their perch in that regard. Mind you I doubt either Brand or Ross are particularly bothered. They still probably make more in a few weeks than I make in a year.
Georgina Baillie, the poor victimised grand daughter, seems like a slightly unpleasant character. She’s obviously set to make a very tidy amount of money out of this. Seemingly having Ross and Brand leaving an answering machine message on her grand fathers phone at no financial benefit to her provokes moral indignation but seemingly it’s all fine and dandy if her grand father can read about all that and more in the Sun with her collecting a fat cheque. Not to mention complete with a few air brushed photos of her with more front than the Western one in 1918 popping above the dugout.
The BBC also fluffed it regally as per usual. The production team should never have let the show air in the first place.

by NSA on October 31, 2008 at 3:18 pm. Reply #

“The days when comedy reached the standards of “Monty Python” or Peter Cook and Dudley Moore are long gone.”

I don’t know. Have you forgotten how often the sketches failed? 🙂

More seriously whilst we had the Python’s and Peter Cook at that time there was also Love thy Neighbour (which IIRC was the most watched programme one Christmas).

I adore Spike Milligan (behind only Cook and Hancock) and there’s little doubt about his comic genius. But some of his material was deeply questionable. I don’t recall Curry and Chips getting a re-run on UK Gold for example.

by Hywel Morgan on October 31, 2008 at 4:39 pm. Reply #

Hywel, another point.

I don’t see how there can be a question of gross misconduct because two BBC producers okayed the material to be broadcast.

I agree entirely about Georgina Baillie – I don’t think I’ve ever liked anyone represented by Max Clifford!

by Chris Keating on October 31, 2008 at 4:53 pm. Reply #

Fair point 🙂

Technically there’s no reason why gross misconduct is automatically unbroadcastable (different tests) but I’ll concede that isn’t the strongest argument I’ve ever put forward 🙂

Just because Andrew Sachs didn’t complain doesn’t preclude a prosecution. There was a case a few months ago of a conviction for racial abuse where the victim was never identified (racial abuse shouted at a muslim woman in a car IIRC).

by Hywel Morgan on October 31, 2008 at 5:04 pm. Reply #

Mentioning Spike Milligan and Peter Hancock, whilst thinking about Dave Allen (a big favourite of mine), and the Two Ronnies, it makes the six million a year Ross is paid seem all the more obscene.

by NSA on October 31, 2008 at 5:25 pm. Reply #

I wonder if Georgina Baillie was named after the song “Georgina Bailey” by Noosha Fox? Just an idle thought….

by Paul Walter on October 31, 2008 at 5:44 pm. Reply #

There is clearly political space for a back lash against the4 back lash.

1. Its a tabloid driven witch hunt

2. have we not better things to discuss at the moment.

3. few people listen to this show and of those only 2 complained on the night

4. Its been used to bash the BBC by self interested parties

5. we have independent regulators and they shgould be allowed to get on with the job.

Don Foster has sort of made point five but other wise diiddly squat from the party.

If you want coverage in the current climate you are going to have to say something, well, edgy.

by Clegg's Ardent Admirer on November 1, 2008 at 3:41 am. Reply #

OK, suppose the messages left on Sach’s answer machine had involved racist abuse, as Sachs is Jewish, anti-semitic?

Would we still be regarding this as tabloid driven silliness, which we shouldn’t be taking seriously?

The messages left were intended to be hurtful and to cause embarrassment, just as hurtful as if they had been racist. The fact that they were hurtful in a way that didn’t involve racism doesn’t change that.

What we had here was a form of bullying – leaving hurtful messages on someone’s answer machine is a common form of bullying which has been a lead factor in some child suicides.

We have a serious problem with bullying in society, and having the star comedians on some programme engage in simulated or actual bullying as something for us to laugh at and admire them for doing is unacceptable – as unacceptable as if they had engaged in any other form of abuse, such as making anti-semitic remarks, with the intent for us to laugh WITH them at it. I understand from the coverage that this was actual bullying, as this was a real unsolicited message left on Sach’s answer machine, though it is possible when the programme was broadcast people assumed it was a planned set-up so were less likely to complain on that assumption.

People are massively influenced by what is in the broadcast media when it comes to how they behave or how they think it is acceptable to behave. That is why we do have a right to draw lines and say that certain things are unacceptable, it is why, for example, we would not tolerate racist comedy, and have driven it out where it used to exist – even if the comedians who used to give it would ssay they meant no harm, it was just a “bit of fun”.

I can accept the argument that the two comedians here just got carried away and did something that in the cold light of day seems wrong. Fine – that happens, if it happens we apologise right away. However, there are people whose job it is to check comedy like this in the cold light of day. That is why I feel that in this case the greater guilt falls on the person who in this case had that job. I understand the controller of Radio 2 has resigned in order to protect that person. I think she should have just sacked that person.

by Matthew Huntbach on November 1, 2008 at 9:45 pm. Reply #

Matthew Huntbach wrote:

“OK, suppose the messages left on Sach’s answer machine had involved racist abuse, as Sachs is Jewish, anti-semitic?”

50% Jewish. Unlike Ross’s wife, who is 100% Jewish (if such a thing is possible).

Believe it or not, Sachs was once at the centre of a race row himself when “Fawlty Towers” was broadcast in Spain. There was uproar. I’m sure it occurred to no-one making the programme that people in Barcelona might take offence. But they did.

There was no race or religion motive in what Ross and Brand did, just obnoxiousness aimed at the clappometer.

Manuel was miles funnier.

by Sesenco on November 2, 2008 at 1:58 pm. Reply #

Sesenco, you have missed my point.

I’m not suggesting Ross or Brand had any race or religious motive. The point I was making doesn’t depend on whether Sachs is Jewish or not. I was simply noting one place where we currently draw a line on what is acceptable as broadcast humour is anything which could be construed as racist. If we are going to take the line that any broadcast humour is acceptable, so long as some people find it funny, and that to complain about this particular piece of humour is trivial and nit-picking, we must say either agree we would say the same about a piece of humour which uses racism, or put up an argument as to why racism in humour should be treated as so much more offensive than what was done here.

The reason why humour which involves racist stereotyping is frowned upon, I guess, is because even when done in a “ha ha, we’re just trying to be funny way”, there is the concern that it does put across the idea that judging people by their race is acceptable. There was a time when racial stereotyping in humour was acceptable if the humour worked on us laughing AT the racist rather than with the racist (the “Fawlty Towers” example you quote is a mild form of this), but some of the comedy which worked on this basis in the past now makes us uncomfortable and isn’t broadcast again.

The Ross and Brand joke here was clearly based on the idea that bullying someone by leaving messages for them which would upset them is funny. And listeners were clearly intended to laugh WITH the comedians, and not AT them for doing such an unpleasant thing. Many people do find bullying funny, that is why it is so rife. So why does it differ from racism in that we find it more acceptable, in the sense that many people seem to think this should be regarded as a small issue? As I said, had Ross and Brand set out to offend someone by being racist towards them, it would have been regarded as a much worse thing, and I doubt most of those currently saying “lighten up, it was just edgy humour, you might not like it, but the kids love this sort of thing” would be saying the same thing.

by Matthew Huntbach on November 2, 2008 at 7:31 pm. Reply #

I actually listend to the broadcast at the time, I thought it uncomfortable, unfunny and out of order. I think there should have been consequences.

That said, the media witch hunt was vastly disproportionate to what happened. Many people are jumping on the bandwagon maliciously, not because they were offended by the calls, but because they want to put the boot in to highly paid celebrities whose style they dislike. This behaviour is in my opinion much worse than the calls themselves.

I think Don Foster is spot on.

by Biscit on November 2, 2008 at 7:55 pm. Reply #

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