No question the hottest story of the week has been Brandgate, pushing Robert Peston and the recession off the front pages and onto the backburner. Things moved fast today when the BBC announced first the suspension of Brand and co-broadcaster Jonathan Ross, then Brand’s resignation. The fate of Ross remains unknown but Brand was always going to be more expendable than Ross. Brand has already been sacked from three commercial radio and TV channels and has a track record in poor-taste prank calls.
I’ve enjoyed Ross since his screen debut on The Last Resort on C4 in the mid-80s. I listen to his Saturday show pretty much every week and tune in most weeks to the Friday TV show. I’m all in favour of edgy comedy too, comedians should push boundaries, but there was nothing edgy about invading an elderly man’s privacy (and his granddaughter’s), nor being abusive when he couldn’t answer back. It simply was not funny. Prank calls are fine when all parties are consenting and in on the joke. This was not one of those occasions.
I felt extremely upset for Georgina Baillie, who was the other innocent party in this. One may question the wisdom of having sex with Brand, who is not exactly known for discretion, but that did not give him the right to brag about this particular conquest to her grandfather. Both English common law and the European Convention enshrine the right to privacy and recent court decisions are now enforcing this more strictly than in the past. Certainly within our families we should expect a right to privacy where our sex lives are concerned. Baillie’s privacy was breached not once but twice. First by Brand calling up Andrew Sachs then by the BBC for broadcasting it.
There are really three issues at the crux of Brandgate. Firstly, there is the right to privacy (and let’s not forget that Sachs had his privacy invaded too). Secondly, the BBC is a publicly funded institution and is therefore publicly accountable. I think this particularly applies when highly paid talent such as Ross and Brand are involved in such gross lapses of judgment. I’m not going to join the braying mob because action has already been taken and, besides, Brand’s sensible decision to resign will appease the mob somewhat. No doubt he took advice suggesting it was better to go before he was pushed. More importantly, the show was prerecorded. Those who took the decision to go ahead and broadcast it unedited will undoubtedly pay for their errors. There are already question marks hanging over the future of the licence fee.
At £135 a year, I find the BBC very good value for money, offering around eight TV channels and nearly a dozen national radio stations, plus all the regional output. It does an extraordinarily good job within the constraints it is bound by and iut is the envy of the world as a public service broadcaster. Yet those who are calling for the abolition of the licence fee are the same people who happily fork out £30 a month for satellite services, many of whose programmes are of far poorer quality. It would be a tragedy if Brandgate were to smash wide open the possibility of the BBC having to change its funding model.
Thirdly, there are grounds for criminal prosecution on possible charges of harassment. While Sachs has stated he will not make a complaint to the police, there is still the matter of the Ofcom investigation and the police could, of course, press charges anyway if they felt the grounds for a successful prosecution were strong enough.
John Harris in the Guardian today makes some very pertinent points about how and why the BBC has found itself in this mess. It’s not just the BBC though. There has been a coarsening across the board in all broadcast output, a sea change that reflects the rapid changes that have taken place in society over the last few decades. The volume of complaints received echoes that over the Goody/Shetty furore in Celebrity Big Brother last year. We should see this is as sign that the public is very aware when lines are crossed and will not hesitate to speak up. I do not believe that TV has dumbed down that much but I do think programme makers need to understand that common decency has to be a linchpin of broadcast output.