A revolt of the masses against the BBC?

The 40,000 complaints over the Brand/Ross affair express our instinctive outrage against aloof, patronising broadcasters.

Neil Davenport

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‘Absolute idiots.’ So roared TV critic and writer Charlie Brooker, discussing the thousands of people who have phoned the BBC or Ofcom to complain about the lewd antics of Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand on Brand’s BBC Radio 2 show last month.

Apparently, considering that the 40,000 or so people who have complained only registered their disgruntlement after the Mail On Sunday (and others) stoked the Ross/Brand controversy, they must be impressionable simpletons who are easily led by newspapers’ hysterical and reactionary outbursts. ‘Why can’t they see the edgy merit of knob gags?’ – that seems to be the undertone to Brooker and other commentators’ rising sense of exasperation over ‘Brandgate’ (when Brand and Ross made childish and offensive phone calls to the 78-year-old actor Andrew Sachs).

Indeed, much of the media, perhaps feeling rather defensive about the fallout from the Ross/Brand debacle, have started to lash out at an imagined league of Daily Mail conspirators and prudish complainers, accusing them of ruining the media wideboys’ bit of fun.

On one level, the belated uproar by the media, and the intervention even of Gordon Brown into the affair, shows that Ross and Brand’s crass, juvenile outburst has been blown out of all proportion. Indeed, this is a classic example of deviancy amplification, whereby the secondary labelling of someone’s behaviour has a more powerful impact than the original behaviour itself. And as Tim Black has already pointed out on spiked, the whole affair reveals how self-obsessed the media have become (see ‘Brandgate’: turning crudity into a crisis, by Tim Black). It is self-referencing media commentators and reporters who have kept the Dross/Bland controversy boiling over for two weeks. There was no demand from the public to keep it in the news. That decision has rested with newspaper, TV and radio editors.

Nonetheless, the number of complaints registered to the BBC and Ofcom regarding Ross/Brand’s behaviour is highly significant; there is something more going on here than a Daily Mail-inspired expression of Middle England outrage. And that might explain why Brooker and other apparently edgy commentators have responded to the complaints with a mixture of fear and loathing. Too many observers have written off the complainers as dopes with questionable IQs. That is a convenient and flattering notion for our supposedly refined commentariat to cling to, but what does the public’s avalanche of complaints really tell us?

In some ways, the public’s response to the Ross/Brand affair is not only about the incident itself but something like a damning judgement of the metropolitan elites who run the BBC. Defenders of Ross say it was a ‘bad joke that misfired’, an ill-judged ‘one-off’. But Ross and Brand’s outburst was not a rare editorial error – it was in fact the latest in a relentless stream of juvenile crudities that seem to have tested the public’s patience. The BBC should really have questioned its editorial integrity after Ross asked Conservative Party leader David Cameron on his primetime Friday night TV show whether he ever jerked off over Margaret Thatcher. Even in the context of mindless pub banter, such a comment would have been greeted with an embarrassed and awkward silence. When it is broadcast to millions of people, the only conclusion one can draw is that the BBC thinks its audience is a bunch of tossers who want to hear about Cameron wanking.

When Ross interviewed legendary Hollywood actress and radical Seventies activist Jane Fonda, she was alarmed by his crude questioning, and she said so. The incredulous look on Fonda’s face was of the ‘what’s going on in this country?’ variety. Millions of BBC viewers were probably thinking the same. The BBC continually gives the audience what it thinks we want and are capable of appreciating: childish and crude chit-chat. So when an opportunity presented itself to the public to let the BBC know what we think of its scheduling and its big media stars, a substantial minority of people went for it. To put this down to blue-rinse pensioners and brainwashed Daily Mail readers is a trite way of avoiding some very uncomfortable truths about how ordinary people view the media. The backlash against Ross/Brand is not a one-off.

Take the minor debacle involving the BBC’s digital radio station 6music. The niche station covers new and old left-field music and gives over late-night slots to free-form jazz, obscure psychedelic rock and Seventies soul. It’s a nerdish music-spotting station and its djs were sober and knowledgable, well-suited for the station’s remit. Well, that was before BBC controllers decided to replace 6music’s specialist djs with ‘personality’ figures like George Lamb (who?) and a certain Russell Brand (who was later poached by Radio 2).

Lamb’s ‘zoo’-style radio format turned out to be a tired rehearsal of the giggling, ironic and inane blather of Chris Evans and Chris Moyles, except Lamb and his cohorts make Moyles’ early-morning Radio 1 show sound like a tricky round of University Challenge in comparison. Despite the fact that thousands of people signed online petitions against the changes at 6music, and despite Lamb’s show being savaged by the critics, the BBC insisted that listeners find specialist music shows ‘alienating’ and what they really want is… inane banter and knob gags.

The BBC has rightly been criticised for failing to hold the line on cultural matters and for indulging its highly paid stars. But in a countless number of situations (the Ross and Brand debacle is only the latest example), the line that the BBC has aggressively held on to is the bottom one. For a long time, it seems, millions of ordinary people have been aghast at the crude and simply unchallenging content on BBC TV and radio.

Funnily enough, the contempt that Brooker and others now express for those who have complained about Brand/Ross is the same contempt that programme-makers and editors show for the masses. The populist ethos has always been about projecting a desultory idea of what the elites think the masses are capable of understanding. And people are often highly sensitive to being patronised by taste-makers, and will react accordingly.

However, in recent years the trajectory of the BBC and Channel 4 (Wife Swap, You Are What You Eat, Jamie Bloody Oliver) has been about more than populism – it has also involved launching a sneering attack on what the top broadcasters consider to be the narrow and boring respectability of their ‘provincial’ audiences (see Doffing the Burberry cap to nihilism, by Neil Davenport).

The cultural theorist Hannah Arendt once argued that those at the top end of society can sometimes act like low-lifes because they are as estranged from wider society as, say, a vagrant or a petty criminal. This can sometimes lead to outbursts of ‘genuine delight’, she said, when low-life attitudes are used to ‘destroy respectability’. In some ways, the public’s instinctive feeling that they, as members of normal society, are the ones that Ross and Brand and the BBC are really sniggering at has made us angry; it is this, I would argue, that underpins the rising number of complaints, rather than any deep-rooted conservatism. There was a similar response from people when the Sex Pistols repeatedly swore on Bill Grundy’s TV show in 1976. As one lorry driver put it at the time: ‘I might use that language at work or down the pub, but I certainly don’t want to hear it coming out of a TV set.’ This is not prudishness about swearing; it is a recognition that adults using profanities in an informal and private setting is fine and grown up; but using them in public broadcasting, which should offer us something more refined and intelligent, can be simply childish.

None of this, however, is in any way a justification for censorship and restrictions of expression in popular culture. Although the public’s backlash against the slumming habits of the BBC strikes me as laudable, the role of Ofcom is entirely reprehensible. By setting itself up as a buffer and a ‘right to reply’ body against the crass excesses of the media, this unelected and unaccountable outfit legitimises itself as a draconian censor in society. As a result, the people complaining about Ross and Brand, because they have few mechanisms through which to register their disgust with the state broadcaster, have ended up seeing their complaints co-opted by a body that will ultimately work against our best interests regarding free expression and cultural content.

Today’s retrograde climate cannot be fixed with more censorship, restrictions or sackings and suspensions from the BBC. The problem today is a cultural one which reflects the media’s low horizons and lack of faith in its audience; it involves top-down sneering over audiences that are apparently too bourgeois and straight to get flaccid knob gags. If anything else can be gleamed from the tawdry Brand/Ross affair, it is that, yes, comedy should be provocative and shocking, so long as it’s actually funny. Today, a great deal of the media’s apparently edgy output doesn’t challenge us as smart adults but treats us like moronic adolescents. Does anyone really believe there’s anything boundary-breaking about that?

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

Previously on spiked

Tim Black wrote how ‘Brandgate’ showed the BBC has no idea how to behave. Jennie Bristow reminded those who hated Tony Blair that the BBC is a broadcaster not a political opposition. Tony Gilland showed how the BBC’s Panorama had conducted a ‘trial by television’. Dolan Cummings ridiculed the corporation’s white, middle-class, self-flaggelation. Rob Lyons suggested the Brass Eye special was controversial broadcasting worth defending. Or read more at spiked issue TV.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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