Should BBC licence fee-payers foot £150k 'Sachsgate' fine?

by Stephen Tall on April 5, 2009

No, says Don Foster, the Lib Dems’ shadow culture, media and sports secretary, following media regulator Ofcom’s announcement on Friday that it was fining the BBC £150,000 following the infamous prank calls made by Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross on Mr Brand’s Radio 2 show:

This money should come out of Jonathan Ross’s salary so that broadcasting does not suffer.”

Hmmm. Sorry, Don, but you’ve not convinced me your statement is anything other than populist drivel.

Of course Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross bear ultimate resonsibility for their potty-mouths. But what they said was broadcast by the BBC, and the Beeb must bear its share of responsibility.

So let’s start by referring to the Ofcom report, and find out why they decided to levy this £150k fine on the Beeb: it was because the regulator identified “no fewer than six flaws within the Radio 2 compliance systems”, most significantly that the BBC did not appoint its own executive producer to take overall editorial responsibility for the Russell Brand show. By outsourcing production to Mr Brand’s own company, the Corporation had in effect washed its hands of responsibility of a programme which the BBC itself had identified as ‘high risk’, and which had (in its earlier BBC 6 Music incarnation) already breached broadcasting rules just a few months previously.

I’m all for individual responsibility, and both Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross have held up their hands, and apologised publicly: Brand resigned, and Ross was suspended for three months. But individual responsibility doesn’t both start and stop with presenters. It pertains, too, to their editors and managers, who are also paid by the BBC licence fee to keep a watchful eye on their talent. Ofcom puts it rather well:

Comedy in particular has a tradition of challenging and even deliberately flouting boundaries of taste. Whilst such programming must have room for innovation and creativity, it does not have unlimited licence. Individual performers and presenters may sometimes overstep the line. However, it is the responsibility of broadcasters operating in creative environments to have robust systems in place and apply them so as to ensure compliance with the Code, and specifically in this case so that individuals and members of the public are provided adequate protection from offensive and harmful material and unwarranted infringements of privacy. Creative risk is therefore part of the BBC’s public service role but so is risk management.

I’m disappointed by Don’s response for the Lib Dems. It is tempting and all-too-easy to jump on the anti-Ross bandwagon, and to claim you’re standing up for the poor BBC licence fee-payer. I’m sure the point will earn a cheap round of applause wherever it’s uttered.

But if there’s one thing we’ve learned in the last six months – from broadcasting to banking – it is that institutions which wish to maintain their reputations need to take far greater responsibility for their own collective actions. It’s simply not enough to scapegoat individuals for the failings of management. Yes, there needs to be more individual responsibility in society; but let’s not forget the importance of corporate responsibility as well. The two go hand in hand.