Saturday, November 01, 2008

Ross and Brand: Don't Join the Hysteria

I had intended not to blog about the Jonathan Ross / Russell Brand / Andrew Sachs / Georgina Baillie saga, but since it has taken up residence on the front pages of most newspapers and featured widely in blogland, I suppose I had better join in.

First off, I think that if Ross and Brand should be sacked, then they should have been sacked long before this particular stunt. For being crap. And for demanding huge sums of money for being crap. Looked at in employment terms, this was surely a performance issue long before it was a disciplinary one. It is an absolute scandal that anyone should be paid £6m a year for doing anything at all - let alone that a public employee should be paid £6m per year for being crap when the vast majority of public employees are very good at their jobs but are being told to accept below-inflation pay rises.

Ok, so my personal view that they are crap is just that: a personal view. Sure, there should be a place in public broadcasting for people who Janine does not personally like. But I'm sure we could all think of a hundred better uses to which the BBC could have put both the millions of quid and the hours of airtime.

The Sachs incident itself? It was pathetic and out of order. Public humiliation is not a form of entertainment in my book. Picking on someone who has done nothing to deserve your broadcast bullying is barrel-scraping of an unacceptable kind.

And just because a woman dances in a group called the Satanic Sluts does not mean that her sex life is fair game for public broadcast. Those who argue that it does remind me of the detestable practice of defence lawyers introducing a woman's sexual history as some kind of mitigation to excuse her rapist.

So, would I shed a tear if Ross and Brand were sacked? Never to darken our airwaves again? No, I wouldn't. But will I join in the wave of demands for their heads on a platter? No, I won't do that either. Why?

The media coverage of this really is way, way over the top. No doubt that's partly a result of the cult of the celebrity; it's partly a result of genuine and correct objection to their behaviour. But there is a third factor too: a conservative, censorious outburst by those who think sex, swearing and irreverence are very, very naughty and think that the BBC is a haven of lefty, liberal, disrespectful progressives who must be pulled into line.

One sign of this is that there were only a handful of complaints after the broadcast itself, but tens of thousands after the front page denunciations appeared. I would always be alarmed at the prospect of being on the same side of an argument as the Daily Mail, and I will not join their side on this one. The Mail has no genuine objection to Ross' and Brand's fat-cat salaries, nor to bullying or sexism. It objects to its perception of the BBC's non-adherence to traditional values, and probably to the very existence of the BBC as a state-run broadcaster.

An outright victory for right-wing critics of Ross and Brand would mean that all sorts of broadcasters and comics would come under increasing scrutiny, not just to ensure that they stay within acceptable bounds of non-persecution of elderly actors and their granddaughters, but to ensure that they stay within bounds of behaviour acceptable to the Daily Mail. The Mail has already begun to cast its net wider using the momentum of the Ross/Brand scandal to demand censorship of broadcast material that offends its sense of 'tastefulness' and 'decency'.

We can and should condemn Ross' and Brand's broadcast, but we also have to defend comedy and broadcasting from would-be censors. The charge-sheet against Ross and Brand includes that they were 'offensive'. Indeed they were, but that is the same charge levelled by Bible-bashers against 'Jerry Springer: the Opera', and it was a cause of celebration that their attempts to suppress it failed.

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