‘Brandgate’: turning crudity into a crisis
What the Brand/Ross affair reveals about standards at the Beeb, media self-obsession and Ofcom’s lust for censure.
So, Russell Brand has fallen on his sword (or ‘pork sword’, as he might hilariously put it) and Jonathan Ross is enjoying a suspension from his regular presenting job. Both will be off-air at the BBC for the duration of an internal investigation into a late-night radio broadcast in which the big-haired duo left obscene messages on the answerphone of actor Andrew Sachs.
Given the way that this story has simultaneously engorged the media and excited Westminster, you might be forgiven for thinking it was a JFK moment for British public life. ‘Do you remember what you were doing on the evening of 18 October, the day civility died?’
What happened on that fateful evening? Well, during his regular late Saturday evening slot on BBC Radio 2, comedian Russell Brand, egged-on by his guest Jonathan Ross, left sexually explicit messages on the answer machine of the 78-year-old Sachs, famous for playing Manuel, the hapless Spanish waiter, in the 1970s BBC sitcom Fawlty Towers.
Sachs was not, however, a random name plucked from the phone book; he had been scheduled to appear on Brand’s show, but cancelled at the last minute. He can’t have reckoned on what would happen next. Over the course of several separate messages, Ross and Brand blurted out that Brand had had sex with Sachs’ granddaughter, Georgina Baillie, and even explained how and where Brand had taken her. Over the sofa, apparently. Later, Brand left a faux-apologetic message: ‘I said some things I didn’t of oughta, like I had sex with your granddaughter.’
As comedy stunts go, it was crude, incredibly intrusive, and not funny. So not surprisingly, perhaps, it was also largely ignored after being broadcast. This is the strange thing about the current media hysteria; Saturday 18 October, the day of the crude Brand radio show, was not notable for the Brandy and Wossy aberration. Nor was Sunday. And Monday passed off in blissful ignorance, too. In fact, a whole week went by with barely a mention of Brand and Ross’ humiliation of the man known as Manuel. Of course, a few people were upset by the broadcast, and complained. Two, in fact. Two complaints do not amount to public outrage.
For the cause of all the hyperventilated coverage, we mustn’t look to the broadcast itself. Rather, the whole empty saga has largely been created by a self-obsessed media. It was not until the Mail on Sunday, seizing on the opportunity to bash the BBC, ran the story on 26 October, suggesting there ought to be an Ofcom inquiry, that Ross and Brand’s faux pas came to light. Other news outlets, including the ever-defensive BBC, picked up on it and since then the whole sorry farce has been gathering pace.
With the media masturbation quickening its stroke, another 1,500 people also decided, over a week later, that they, too, were offended enough to complain. By Wednesday morning, a further 16,500 people found themselves vexed after the fact. These days, it seems, one doesn’t have to have found something offensive at the time it was said in order to have been offended by it later; you don’t even have to have heard the broadcast in question – simply being offended on behalf of another (in this case Sachs and his granddaughter) is enough. If they keep this up, generations yet to be born will still be jamming the Ofcom switchboard, demanding the posthumous prosecution of Wally Woss and Shagged Brandy. All too aware of the historical import of The Mockery of Manuel, the BBC has even created a ‘timeline’ of the incident on its news website, a move usually reserved for the little things in life, like wars and recessions.
Even the UK prime minister, Gordon Brown, has now poked his nose in, describing the broadcast as ‘offensive and inappropriate’; Tory leader David Cameron has called for an inquiry. All of which suggests that there is nothing so trivial that a politician desperately in search of the public’s whereabouts won’t comment on it.
Of course, the incident itself is not trivial to some, especially the Sachs family who were on the receiving end of it. Understandably, Sachs’ granddaughter Baillie, a member of the dance troupe Satanic Sluts Extreme, ‘four of the sexiest depraved London jezebels’ as they describe themselves, was, after consultation with her newly appointed PR expert Max Clifford, ‘utterly horrified and disgusted’. She didn’t stop there: ‘They should at least pay with their jobs.’ What more they should pay with, she doesn’t say.
Her animosity certainly echoes that of the public towards Brand and Ross. While the exorbitant £6million per year that Ross is paid by the BBC hardly seems justified by his succession of televised nob gags and a few film reviews, the problem with Brand is more subtle. A hit on yoof shows, be it on MTV or Channel 4’s Big Brother’s Big Mouth, Brand has been seduced by too many of the media’s men-in-suits looking for something to give their mainstream products edgy appeal. Hence he crops up as a football columnist with a penchant for Faginesque patois in the Guardian, and, in this case, on BBC Radio 2. Unfortunately, his presence does neither side any good. His employers look like sad duffers lusting after hip youth, while he simply jars with his unfamiliar audience. Unsurprisingly, those reading or listening who are unfamiliar with his yoof culture background are left asking: ‘Who is this tosser?’
But in many ways, it’s the BBC who come out of this episode the worst. If Brand and Ross behaved moronically, the lack of judgement shown at every stage of the BBC editorial process is staggering. Not only was the show recorded two days before the actual broadcast, giving plenty of time to decide what to excise and what not, the 25-year-old producer, Nic Philps, actually asked Sachs if he was okay with it. Sachs not only said he was not, but said he would come on Brand’s show to re-record an interview a few days later. Philps never phoned him back. This overriding conviction of the deep comedic value of ribald messages on the 78-year-old’s answer machine, informing him that Russell Brand had ‘fucked’ his granddaughter, is both arrogant and stupid. Now that the broadcast is out there, it should not be censored or censured; but the question of how it got out there is another one entirely. It suggests a serious lack of cultural nous at the Beeb.
We can be certain about one thing, however: the BBC’s seeming lack of judgement will not be recovered courtesy of an Ofcom investigation into the Brand/Ross affair. The Office for Communications, the high-handed regulatory body established in 2003, is now sniffing around this scandal like a junkie who has found some half-filled syringes in a council-block stairway – nothing confers legitimacy on this illegitimate, unelected body so much as thousands of complaints about a broadcast, so the more the merrier. Yet if anything, top-down censure by Ofcom will only exacerbate the BBC’s seeming lack of judgement these days.
This is because the inability to judge what is and is not suitable, what invades someone’s privacy and what does not, is a cultural problem not a regulatory one. Simply dispensing rules and regulations from on high, coercing and threatening people into line, makes things worse. Being told how to behave is different from knowing how to behave. Indeed, it is precisely the experience of stifling conformism promoted by outfits like Ofcom that can lead to the comic Tourette’s offered by the likes of Ross and Brand. If you treat people like kids, you get kids. No wonder the skit was as funny as Tippexing a penis on someone’s school bag – because it was, like a lot of ‘edgy’ comedy these days, kneejerk naughtiness in response to the straitjacket of broadcasting do’s and don’ts.
Should Ross and Brand, and more importantly the Radio 2 production team, be criticised for their lack of judgement? Absolutely. Should they be stopped from exercising a lack of judgement, from spontaneously expressing themselves, no matter how dubiously, in the name of comedy? Absolutely not. Better to have errors of judgement than no need for judgement at all.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked. He is speaking in the session No laughing matter! Has political comedy lost its edge? at the Battle of Ideas festival at the Royal College of Art, London on 1&2 November.
Previously on spiked
Ed Barrett hailed Bernard Manning, the oldest and truest punk in town. Brendan O’Neill interviewed the author of an infantile pisstake of the dying pope. Rob Lyons asked who’s afraid of Jim Davidson? Back in 2001, he argued Channel 4 was right to show the Brass Eye paedophilia special. Mick Hume criticised the caricatured argument around the 2006 Danish Cartoons furore. Or read more at spiked issue Arts and entertainment.
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