The wrong message 

28 October 2008

Gordon Brown criticises Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross’s BBC phone prank

The transcript of what was said

What started out as a “schoolboy prank” (except of course neither participants are schoolboys; they just behave like schoolboys from time to time) is now threatening to escalate into another round of BBC-bashing of a form not seen since the Crowngate affair and the fairly recent premium rate interactivity scandals.

But just exactly how serious is this transgression in the grand scheme of things?

Both Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross are media personalities who have a controversial track record as well as having their own fervent fan base along with equally fervent detractors; Jonathan Ross in particular has previously come under fire for being paid too much money (according to some) by the licence-fee-funded, public service BBC.

And this hatred for Jonathan Ross from some quarters has no doubt fuelled both the attention and ire from the tabloid press; in particular Middle England’s favourite paper the Daily Mail, whose article on Brand and Ross’s answerphone pranks triggered the majority of the complaints received so far on this issue.

Therefore most of the people who complained had never heard (or seen via the webcam) the answerphone pranks in question, and although each complaint does still have a degree of validity attached to them it may subsequently cast some doubt over the severity of the response from politicians and regulators regardless of how bad the incident was.

So of course Gordon Brown’s reaction to the ‘outrage’ is based on expressing the sentiments of a key selection of potential voters (namely, Daily Mail and Express readers), as a counteraction to David Cameron’s attempt to claim the same ‘moral high ground’ for the Tories.

Therefore there appears to be no direct threat to the BBC as a result of all of this (not yet anyway), although such an event does risk escalating the concerns held by some politicians in relation to the BBC Trust; notably a feeling that the Trust has turned out to be closer to the BBC in sentiment than what was perhaps envisaged with its initial creation.

Of course it’s perfectly possible to argue that the BBC Trust’s role in defending licence fee-payers has just coincided with the BBC’s fundamental role of representing the same large group of people (ie. its viewers, listeners and readers), even though some politicians may have intended the BBC to have been somehow put in check by an external body.

There are some doubts as to how well the BBC handled the initial reaction to the answerphone prank, namely that there seemed to be a period of denial that something was wrong. The standard response in these sort of cases ought to be a rushed press release along the lines of “We won’t comment pending further investigation”.

And of course all of this will be investigated by the BBC itself along with its twin external regulators the BBC Trust and (to its legally permissible extent) Ofcom. My expectation is that Ofcom will write some stern words on the issue and maybe fine the BBC a relatively small amount depending on how the BBC and the Trust deal with the aftermath.

Incidentally I think that so-called “wind-up” phone calls are now banned under Ofcom regulations – for one thing the TV Offal series (as broadcast on Channel 4 in the late 90s) could never be commissioned today “as is” – and I would also suspect that “wind-up” answerphone messages would be considered under a similar category.

This in turn may make Ofcom take a stronger view of the transgressions than either the BBC or the BBC Trust, which theoretically could also weaken the hand of the BBC Trust if Ofcom was to throw down the gauntlet in respect to privacy rules to a stronger extent – Ofcom’s decision could set another precedent in this respect.

Bearing in mind the aforementioned criticisms and/or perceived ‘failure’ of the BBC Trust to date from certain quarters, any differences in the handling of this case between the Trust and Ofcom are bound to be noticed and scrutinised by other people, so there will be external pressure on the Trust to somehow deliver a ‘satisfactory’ verdict.

Then there’s the ongoing problem of exactly how this sort of thing can be prevented from happening again, though unfortunately the same issues that dogged some of the previous trust scandals as with the Crowngate “sexing up” of the Queen documentary overseen by independent producer RDF can also apply and are still potentially awkward to overcome.

It basically concerns the relationships between the BBC and its independent producers, and is complicated in Jonathan Ross’s case by the fact that he also owns the production company behind his own shows. Therefore he personally has obligations that extend well beyond the mere notion of being a presenter who is somehow entertaining to listen to.

But of course when someone is primarily concerned with the task of presenting a Radio 2 show – as well as being spurred on by a “partner in crime” – how objective can a presenter be in terms of judging broadcast compliance issues (as well as wearing the presenter hat) in the heat of the moment, or even if something has been planned well in advance?

It’s strongly arguable that this responsibility is part and parcel of why presenters like Jonathan Ross are paid so much money, even if technically speaking much of the money is spent on production costs via his company. He and Russell ought to know when the bounds of taste and decency (and libel laws) are in danger of being broken.

Throughout broadcasting history there has been a litany of examples in relation to presenters thinking that they are greater than the show (or broadcaster) they work for, and such ego trips have often resulted in disciplinary action, sackings and possibly a ruined reputation as well.

Then there’s the role of the show producer to consider; should the producer carry the can if the presenter(s) misjudge the compliancy regulations? Should the producer instantly take the broadcast off-air regardless if someone swears live on-air? Should there be a time delay on all live broadcasts?

Both Russell and Jonathan may be able to subsequently argue that Andrew Sachs and his granddaughter were ‘fair game’ for such treatment and that Andrew gave permission for the broadcast, but there are still some very awkward questions to be asked concerning the issues of broadcasting standards, regulation and the complaints procedure.

Plus the rights of the granddaughter – and the resulting privacy implications – have to be considered at the same time, which will inevitably affect the final judgement made in this particular case, although the relatively unregulated tabloid press handling of this incident should also be taken into account.

Also to be borne in mind is the fact that Jonathan Ross isn’t exactly new to causing controversy even though he is supposedly a key presenter for the BBC both on television and radio. Any future decision made by the BBC to retain him will be subjected to even closer scrutiny from an external perspective, regardless of what happens next.

It may be time to let Jonathan Ross go from the BBC despite his presentational skills and appeal with certain sections of the public; leave it to ITV and its advertisers to deal with his occasional mishaps as opposed to the BBC’s reputation having to be put under the microscope every so often as a result of any controversy.

Otherwise the BBC could end up being left with at least one presenter who may be less than suitable for certain presentational roles as a result of all of this (depending on the final outcome), although if the BBC was forced to sack one or both presenters as a result of this, it will be interesting to see who else would willingly employ them.

But should the BBC give in to any external demands for one or both presenters to be sacked? The BBC ought (and should) have the final say on this issue, otherwise there will be criticism that the corporation caves in too easy to pressure from external sources.

Plus the BBC ought to be the home for taking risks that the commercial sector is unwilling to accept (especially in terms of political commentary), though paradoxically John Whittingdale (a House of Commons select committee chairman) implied that the commercial media sector was a more suitable place for ‘risky’ presenters.

That may be the case for a relatively unregulated commercial broadcasting system, but this comes at a time when the media in general is now coming under greater scrutiny, even including perhaps unworkable proposals for greater regulation of that wild west frontier known as the internet.

Regardless of what happens next, the BBC will have to defend its final decision as well as balancing the potential risks that may occur as a result, but keeping Jonathan Ross (in particular) as a presenter may turn out to be too much of a liability even if nothing untoward was to happen for quite some time.

Especially if the BBC’s critics end up having the final say.

A member of the Transdiffusion Broadcasting System
Liverpool, Monday 17 June 2024