One of the best things about our modern, online, 24/7 world is the speed with which it allows word-of-mouth to spread, and for people to voice their opinions.
It’s a double-edged sword, though.
One of the worst things about our modern, online, 24/7 world is the speed with which it allows word-of-mouth to spread, and for people to voice their opinions.
From those idiots who seem to do nothing but snipe and post spiteful vitriol on message boards – “Who does Rebecca Adlington think she is?”, “Russell T Davies has killed Doctor Who”, “X is an ugly cow” – to the Spanish website currently spouting all kinds of racist and homophobic drivel against Lewis Hamilton in advance of Sunday’s Formula 1 title showdown in Brazil, modern communications has become a breeding ground for bandwagons for the moaners to jump on to with unseemly haste.
If you’re a UK resident who hasn’t been hiding under a rock for the past week, you may possibly be aware of an incident which has rippled the normally calm waters of the BBC.
In summary; Russell Brand, aided and abetted by Jonathan Ross, left a series of prank calls on the answerphone of Andrew Sachs (best known as Manuel on Fawlty Towers) insinuating, among other things, that Brand had slept with Sachs’ granddaughter, Georgina Baillie. These were broadcast on Brand’s post-watershed radio show on Saturday 18th October. Two complaints were received by the BBC, both relating to Ross’s swearing rather than the content of Brand’s humour.
Several days later, Sachs’ agent wrote to the BBC, demanding a full public apology. Last Sunday, a full eight days after the event, the Mail on Sunday ran an article condemning Brand, Ross, the BBC, global warming and fox-hunters (or something like that).
And so the media circus exploded. By the following day (Monday), the BBC had over 1,000 complaints on its hands and, as every UK news outlet further fanned the flames, that number swelled to 27,000 by Wednesday, at which point the BBC suspended both stars, and Brand announced he would resign from his radio show. And by the time Radio 2 controller Lesley Douglas tendered her resignation yesterday (Thursday), the count had passed 30,000.
Now, call me an old cynic, but I’m willing to bet that most of those 30,000-odd people who complained have neither listened to the show (either live or on YouTube) nor read the transcripts (which can be easily found online). I’m also willing to bet that a sizeable proportion have never actually seen or heard Brand in action, and have chosen to register complaints simply because they don’t like him or Ross (and particularly the latter’s estimated £6m pa earnings).
So why complain? Because the Mail on Sunday – which likes to consider itself the arbiter of what is right and wrong in modern society – is outraged? Because you heard second-hand from family, friends or colleagues about Brand and Ross making ‘obscene’ phone calls? Or because some people recognise a good bandwagon when they see one and scapegoating some overpaid, over-hyped celebs to take them down a peg or two makes you feel good?
(By the way, I have seen the word ’obscene’ bandied around way too freely with regards to this incident. It was certainly misjudged, lewd and inappropriate, but it was no more obscene than the Sun’s Page 3 girls. Child pornography: now that’s obscene.)
Don’t get me wrong, there has been a multitude of mistakes here. Brand and Ross certainly overstepped the mark, for which they have apologised. Production oversight was virtually non-existent, not helped by the fact that Brand owns the production company which runs his radio show. And the BBC was slow to react: an immediate apology and a prompt response (as opposed to calling an ‘emergency’ meeting the following week) could well have nipped the whole affair in the bud. (It’s clear the BBC did not learn from Channel 4’s equally ponderous handling of the Jade Goody/Shilpa Shetty Celebrity Big Brother racism row.)
However, what’s done is done. Brand and Douglas are gone, and Ross has been hit heavily in the pocket. The BBC will introduce tighter production controls, and will no doubt err on the side of conservatism in its humour, just as its investigative news reporting lost some of its teeth in the wake of the Hutton inquiry.
30,000 people – and let’s remember that only two complained initially – almost all of whose quality of life would have remained blissfully unaffected had the media not raised public awareness of the affair, have brought about a significant change in the UK radio landscape. I guess that’s democracy for you.
Odd, isn’t it? I’m not a fan of Russell Brand, so I choose not to listen to his radio show. For me, an apology, a slap on the wrist and better judgment in the future would have been enough. Bloodshed was unnecessary. (In the same way, I’m not a fan of Chelsea, but every time they do something that displeases me I don’t feel the need to complain to the Premier League asking for them to be fined or deducted points. What’s the difference?)
Brand isn’t the victim here: he will quickly return with his edgy, bad boy image enhanced. Neither is Ross: yes, he has forfeited an estimated £1.4m in earnings as a result of his suspension, but the BBC can ill-afford to jettison the man who is arguably its biggest TV and radio audience draw. Baillie has sold her side of the story to the Sun, and will no doubt extract the maximum from her 15 minutes of fame. And Sachs, thanks to his agent, is back in the public consciousness from which he has been absent since Fawlty Towers.
No, the victim here is Lesley Douglas, the controller of Radio 2, who resigned yesterday because (in her own words) “the events of the last two weeks happened on my watch”.
The BBC has lost a talented controller, one who over the past four years has transformed Radio 2 into the UK’s most popular radio station – with 13 million listeners – and assembled a diverse and enviable roster of talent, including Ross, Brand, Terry Wogan and Chris Evans.
More than that, the corporation has lost an honourable servant, one who has accepted responsibility for errors made, not by herself, but by her people.
If only politicians were as honourable in accepting responsibility for their actions (let alone those of their people) – but then I suppose the House of Commons would be a very empty place if that were the case!
So, to the 30,000-odd people who took the opportunity to have a pop at Brand and/or Ross: I hope you’re happy now. Radio has lost an unsung champion in Lesley Douglas, a casualty of war.
Sadly, I doubt too many of those 30,000 will even care. The baying crowd has tasted blood, and that’s all that really matters to them. You’ll forgive me if I want no part of that: I’m quite happy to let the bandwagon roll on without me. I need the exercise anyway.