If you live in Britain or read the British media, you would have no doubt heard about the controversy surrounding the broadcast of The Russell Brand Show on Radio 2 which has dominated the headlines for nearly two weeks now. Brand and his guest, fellow comedian and broadcaster Jonathan Ross, had obtained the mobile phone number of veteran comedian and actor Andrew Sachs who was due to appear on the same show, but hadn't shown up. Sachs is much loved by the British public for his role as the waiter Manuel in the 1970s hit show Fawlty Towers. Brand and Ross proceeded to leave messages on Sachs’ answering machine that were perceived by many to be rude and obnoxious including comments about Sachs’s grandaughter, burlesque dancer Georgina Baillie, who later admitted to having slept with Brand. So far, so yawnworthy. In fact, only two people had bothered to complain to the BBC after the show was broadcast.
Then the story was picked up by the British tabloid media and soon people who hadn’t even heard the show and never listen to it started to complain about the program. The BBC is said to have received over 30,000 complaints at the time of this writing. The media has been obsessed with the story for the last week, with news of financial crisis, US elections, earth-shattering profits by oil companies while the Arctic ice thins, and wars for even more oil all but superseded by this storm in a teacup.
Heads are rolling. Brand has quit, Ross is on three-month suspension and the Radio 2 controller, Lesley Douglas, has resigned. Ofcom and the BBC are conducting more reviews and presumably some program editors and staff will also be nudged out or taking up new careers in the mailroom.
So who’s complaining? One group are the tabloid readers who probably haven’t heard the show, loved Fawlty Towers and the bumbling Manuel, and hate paying taxes. Point out to them that their tax money is used to pay the salaries of the likes of Ross and Brand, and you've got an instant-mix mob replete with torches and pitchforks at the ready to skewer the Beeb on sight.
Another group are typically older people who are confounded by the crudity of youth culture and think the BBC should only be about the Proms and period drama. Radio 4 broadcast several phone-in complaints this morning – many with a distinctly posh accent and a propensity to overuse the adjectives ‘awfully’ and ‘frightfully’ in their sentences. For them, Brand and Ross represent the crassness of the ‘lower cultures’ owing to their distinctly un-posh accents and sometimes oversexed repertoire.
Then there’s the politicians, from all sides, eager to get the financial crisis out of the headlines and attempt to make themselves appeal to the populace. Prime Minister Gordon Brown weighed in by admonishing Ross and Brand’s ‘clearly inappropriate and unacceptable behaviour’ the very same week that his new Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, Peter Mandelson, came under scrutiny for corruption allegations. Conservative party leader David Cameron cashed-in on the furore by insisting that more heads at the BBC needed to roll: ‘The BBC needs to be transparent about how it takes decisions and explain its decision-taking process so that everyone can see what more needs to be done.’ This, again, the same week his Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, faces similar allegations.
It bears repeating, that in the context of this huge row, we are witnessing one of the worst financial crises for decades, the ever-increasing threat of drastic climate change while oil companies rake-in record profits, and war in Iraq and Afghanistan. So when Gordon Brown insists, that the illegal invasion of Iraq, which has cost tens of thousands of lives and is paid for by the British taxpayer, is to ensure that ‘the new Iraqi democracy is properly safeguarded’ – where are the 30,000 complaints to the BBC when that that particular obscenity is broadcast on Newsnight?
Then there’s the question of Andrew Sachs who’s being treated as some sort of comedic royalty and therefore untouchable. Yes, Sachs was the butt of a crass joke. But he also traded on them himself. Let’s not forget that Señor Sachs made his name by playing the bumbling feckless Spanish waiter Manuel in Fawlty Towers who was regularly beaten and abused by John Cleese’s character Basil Fawlty owing to him being so dim. Despite his own direct experience of the Nazi-led persecution of his own family and his fellow Jews in his homeland Germany, he didn’t hesitate to trade in the comedic currency of negative stereotype in his portrayal of Spanish people as a dim-witted servant class. He is therefore no stranger to crude and tasteless comedy and should anyway know better than to chide others for indulging in the same.
BBC plc and ‘the secret people of England’?
Rival commercial companies and commercial media outlets smell blood. They resent the fact that the BBC, as a public service, gets license-fee money. It was Murdoch’s Sun newspaper which bought the exclusive interview with Sach’s grandaughter Georgina Baillie (who’s now contracted the help of celebrity publicist Max Clifford), and it is Murdoch’s Sky Television which is the main commercial satellite broadcaster in this country.
And then there’s the baying mob of right-wingers who are clamouring for this episode to be used as a springboard for full privatization of the BBC itself. The free-market think-tank, the Adam Smith Institute, could barely contain their glee: ‘The public is rightly outraged and as such it is the perfect time to consider reform.’ They propose a rapid privatization move, such that: ‘Within ten years the licence fee should be scrapped completely, with BBC Worldwide managing all of the BBC’s interests and the public liberated from paying for the abuses of oddities such as Brand and Ross.’
Richard Littlejohn, the noisy rightwing columnist for the Daily Mail, yesterday called for the Conservative Party to seize the moment and push for privatization of the BBC: ‘If the Tories could but see it, there’s a once-in-a-blue-moon opportunity here. The BBC is an ideal example of a nationalized industry which has grown bloated and lost sight of its remit.’ After ranting about how the health system, police services, waste collection and everything else should be privatized too– in classic righteous middle-England mode he concluded: ‘We don’t have to take it lying down. This has been a stunning victory for common decency over the self-appointed, self-obsessed, metropolitan narcissists who control so much of our public life. At last, the secret people of England have spoken.’
Russell Brand offered a brilliant retort to the Daily Mail’s incessant diatribes against him and Ross:
‘I would like to remind the Daily Mail that while it is a bit bad to leave a swearword on Andrew Sachs' answer phone, what’s worse – leaving a swearword on Andrew Sachs' answerphone or tacitly supporting Adolf Hitler when he took charge of the Third Reich?
‘When he became chancellor in the old late thirties the Daily Mail printed a letter from a lord going “this Hitler might be all right”. And once old black shirt Oswald Mosely came to prominence in this country the Daily Mail went, “Hurrah for our blackshirted chums”...
‘On one hand you have upset Manuel, on the other you have millions and millions of dead people supported by a powerful media institution.’