I have been a big fan of the British comic Russell Brand for ages. Most people in Canada don't know Russell, except if they've seen the film Forgetting Sarah Marshall, where Russell basically played a rock n' roll version of himself called Aldous Snow, who steals Sarah Marshall and the movie. Russell's hosting of the MTV Video Music Awards in September may have raised his profile somewhat, and he has jumped on the Judd Apatow train and will be making several films in the next year, so safe to say, he's the Next Big Thing. Russell often refers to himself as a Dickensian-era chimney sweep thanks to his charming "Mockney" persona and pseudo-Victorian-goth style of dress. He has a great turn of phrase and, most of the time, a high-brow, sarcastic sense of humour that I really enjoy. A highly intelligent guy.
For several years Russell and his writing partner Matt Morgan have hosted a radio show for the BBC, first on 6 Music, and for the past few years, on Radio 2. I have been a big fan of the show, which I listen to on podcasts, in which Russell rambles, engages in shambolic interviews with random celebrities (a highlight includes his interview of Big Bird), and relates generally lewd stories to best buddy Matt. Russell is a recovering heroin addict who freely admits to having a sex addiction and a lot of stories involve who Russell has shagged, is shagging, and wants to shag. It's just part of his persona.
Last week Russell had Jonathan Ross, who hosts a chat show called Friday Night and is the highest paid performer at the BBC (6 million quid a year), as his guest host. Russell has been a frequent guest on Friday Night and they have a good rapport. Things got a little out of hand, though, to say the least.
It all started on last week's show. Russell's guest host, the author David Baddiel, was telling an anecdote about how, as a married father of two, he has always enjoyed popping round to Russell's house to witness various single-guy shenanigans. He mentioned coming over once to hear from Russell that the "Satanic Sluts," a gothic-burlesque dance troupe, were coming over for a little romp. One of the sluts, Georgina Baillie, introduced herself to Baddiel and said her granddad was Andrew Sachs, who played Manual on Fawlty Towers. Baddiel mentioned that he had met Sachs, and Georgina begged him not to tell her granddad that she'd been round to Russell's house. David and Russell had a good laugh about it, and moved on with the program.
Cut to last week, and Jonathan and Russell. An interview with Andrew Sachs was scheduled. The minute they announced this, I knew that it was not going to end well, as clearly the only connection between Russell and Manuel was Georgina. Russell made a point of mentioning again how he had had sex with Sachs' granddaughter and said to Ross not to mention it during the interview. However, Sachs did not pick up the phone, and Russell proceeded to leave an answer-phone message, when suddenly Jonathan Ross yelled out "He fucked your granddaughter" in the background. Russell promptly hung up, giggling. Remorse clearly set in for both of them, and they proceeded to leave several more answer-phone messages, each worse than the next, where they would start out making a contrite apology, and descend into making even more offensive remarks about Sachs and his granddaughter. I'm not easily shocked, but I listened to this as I jogged along this weekend and was shocked a number of times. The program was pre-recorded, so I assumed, with some degree of wonder, that the producers of the show had gotten permission from Andrew Sachs to include these messages in the broadcast. Well, I mused, he's a comedian, so maybe he thinks this is funny, even if I don't.
Well, apparently he didn't find it that funny, and neither did the 27,000 people who have now complained to the BBC. The media grabbed ahold of this story on Monday and ran with it. While I found the program somewhat offensive and not that funny, it didn't strike me as worthy of the complete outrage and howls for the heads of Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross that have popped up the news over the past few days. The complaints escalated, and by today, the pressure on the BBC to take some action against the two was insurmountable.
They were both suspended this morning by Mark Thompson, Director General of the BBC, who called the program a "gross lapse of taste." Can you imagine David Letterman being yanked off the air? Suspending Jonathan Ross from broadcasting will have about the equivalent impact here in the UK. Much to my disappointment, Russell Brand did the classy thing about half an hour ago and resigned, saying that he only does his radio show to make people happy, and since it was clear that he wasn't making people happy anymore, so it was time to go. The BBC investigation will not look at whether or not the show should be broadcast; it appears clear that it should not have been. However, the BBC will have to account for how such content was approved, and who gave the nod for such content to go out, and will therefore investigate the editorial processes at Radio 2.
Ofcom, the independent media regulator, has also launched an investigation to determine if the show breached the UK Broadcasting Code, the content standards for television and radio established under the Communications Act 2003 and the Broadcasting Act 1996. Section Two of the Broadcasting Code incorporates articles of the European Convention on Human Rights and establishes minimum standards to protect the public from offensive or harmful material. What does that mean?
Well, no depiction of suicides or self-harm, unless editorially justified. No depictions of exorcisms, the occult, divination or paranormal activities unless it is explicitly stated to be for entertainment purposes only. Competitions should be conducted fairly, and any simulated news must be broadcast in a way that there is no possibility of the public understanding it to be true. From a quick read of the Broadcasting Code, it doesn't appear to me that Brand and Ross clearly violated any specific provision.
So, it appears that Ofcom's investigation will hinge on this, Section 2.3:
"In applying generally accepted standards broadcasters must ensure that
material which may cause offence is justified by the context (see meaning of
“context” below). Such material may include, but is not limited to, offensive
language, violence, sex, sexual violence, humiliation, distress, violation of
human dignity, discriminatory treatment or language (for example on the
grounds of age, disability, gender, race, religion, beliefs and sexual orientation).
Appropriate information should also be broadcast where it would assist in
avoiding or minimising offence."
"Context" means:• the editorial content of the programme, programmes or series (as noted, often it includes who Russell has shagged this week) ;
• the service on which the material is broadcast;
• the time of broadcast (Saturday evenings between 9 pm and 11 pm);
• what other programmes are scheduled before and after the programme or
• the degree of harm or offence likely to be caused by the inclusion of any
particular sort of material in programmes generally or programmes of a
particular description (Aha!);
• the likely size and composition of the potential audience and likely expectation
of the audience;
• the extent to which the nature of the content can be brought to the attention
of the potential audience for example by giving information; and
• the effect of the material on viewers or listeners who may come across it unawares.
So. It will all come down to the degree of harm or offence caused by the inclusion of this material in the program, which will be a subjective determination by Ofcom. I feel like Brand and Ross have lost already, thanks to the furor that has been mostly generated by the London tabs. Sure, it was offensive. But so is Russell's regular item, "GAY!" where he gives "advice" to people with "gay problems." Was this particular episode so offensive that two of the biggest stars should resign? I don't think so. Russell Brand is offensive. But the show was no more offensive than usual. Unfortunately, thanks to the spotlight that has been put on this episode, I think the degree of potential "harm and offence" caused to Andrew Sachs and Georgina Baillie has increased hundredfold. Ofcom will have to find that the program was offensive now and no doubt the BBC will face a large fine.
I think the media has generated much of the firestorm, posting pictures of Georgina in lingerie, and paying her for exclusive interviews in the Sun on how "devastated" she is, chasing poor 78 year old Andrew Sachs down the street to get his reaction and to snap pics of an elderly man clearly overwhelmed by the attention that is being heaped on him, which would inspire a sympathetic reaction in anyone. Apparently, the day after the broadcast, there were only two complaints to the BBC. It was only after several London papers published stories earlier this week, that the complaints began to pour in. I think this is a tempest in a teacup that has been grabbed up by London editors who love to splash tales of Russell's bad boy antics across their pages, and now Brand and Ross are paying the price.
Absolutely, the two need to apologise to Andrew Sachs, and publicly. No granddad wants to hear the details of their granddaughter's sex life. However, the man wasn't born yesterday. His granddaughter's profession is as a "Satanic Slut." She has appeared topless on the Internet and in newspapers as a glamour model. He isn't going to be shocked to learn she isn't as pure as the driven snow. And as for Georgina Baillie a.k.a. Voluptua the Satanic Slut, a word of advice: if you're so concerned about your reputation, you might want to take down the pics of you in a bustier with a whip from your Myspace page, and maybe refrain from engaging in group sex with sex-addict TV stars who regularly speak about their conquests...and at the very least...don't tell him who your granddad is. Brand and Ross weren't funny. Yes, they crossed the line, and no, it wasn't funny. But I don't think the reaction has been commensurate with the action in this case.
Britain regulates media content. Fine. But don't enforce it inconsistently, and don't enforce it only when pressured by public outcry that is generally instigated by rival media outlets. If you're going to stop Russell Brand from broadcasting a show with occasional naughty bits, please get rid of TV shows like Miss Naked Britain, please edit out those bits of Big Brother where we have to watch grainy night-camera footage of people having sex under the covers, censor Little Britain, fine Jamie Oliver every time he says "fuck," and please, no more reality shows with naked glamour models like Jodie Marsh looking for yet another husband, or Danielle Lloyd getting another pair of implants or dating another footballer. Since when are tabloids our collective conscience? That's a scary thought indeed.