Russell Brand, 33, and Jonathon Ross, 47, are two well known radio presenters who were paid huge amounts of money by the BBC to present music and chat shows on radio and television. One night the Brand show, with Ross as a guest, broadcast a telephone call made to the answering machine of Andrew Sachs, 78, an actor best known for his performance as Manuel in Fawlty Towers. The content of the call was a boast by Brand that he had slept with Sachs’s young granddaughter, a singer in a girl-band. The boast was couched in obscene terms and contravenes a British law about sending obscene messages over the telephone. The broadcast received only two complaints, but an alert reporter on the Daily Mail picked up on it and published a piece criticizing the broadcast.
The newspaper article unleashed a frenzied attack on the BBC and the two disc-jockeys. There have now been over 35,000 complaints against the BBC. As a result Brand has resigned and so has the chief executive of the Radio 2, the channel which hosted the broadcast. Ross, the highest paid performer on the BBC has been suspended without pay for 12 weeks while his future employment is considered.
Further information has emerged. It turns out that the broadcast item had been pre-recorded, and must therefore have been approved by an editor and also that the Brand boast was not an idle one; he and the girl had been in a ‘relationship’ for a while last year. It was, nevertheless and ungentlemanly thing to do as well as being illegal. In the meantime another broadcasting offence has been uncovered. ‘Mock the Week’ made lewdly offensive remarks about the Queen and the ‘Disgusted’ of Tunbridge Wells tendency has redirected its attack there.
What has been astonishing is how an after-midnight broadcast, listen to by very few, has caused such a national furore. It is symptomatic of a general unease among middle class, middle-aged Britain.
It has to be remembered that 1947 was the year when Britain’s birth rate was at its greatest. Those born in that year are now 61. They comprise a large slice of the population and, moreover, many are relatively well-off, many are retired and those who are not often hold down jobs of great influence. This is not a constituency to be trifled with. Although, many of these ‘baby-boomers’ were young at the time of the loosening of moral standards in the sixties and seventies and may be thought complicit in the sex, drugs and rock’n’roll revolution, by and large this generation heartily disapproves of Ross, Brand and their ilk.
There are several reasons for this. Many were always opposed to what went on in the sixties and seventies. There was a vanguard of revolutionaries clustered in the capital and infiltrating the media. The Beatles may have come from Liverpool, but they soon made their way to London. The ‘Swinging Sixties’ were centred on Carnaby Street not Coronation Street. I was at a provincial university at this time and never encountered a single spliff. My friends were not sexually promiscuous and nice girls still waited until they were married. We may have approved of David Frost and ‘That Was The Week, That Was’, but their targets were the rich and powerful, not defenceless old men.
The lifestyle ‘enjoyed’ by those in the vanguard was hardly conducive to longevity. Many of those who persisted with it are by now the victims of drug overdose, liver failure, AIDS, cocaine-induced heart attacks, or lung cancer. The hard-core of revolutionaries has been diluted by the conservative majority.
Then, again, there is the natural tendency for people to become more conservative as they get older. You plead harder for the have-nots when you are poor than when you become one of the ‘haves’. This is not the whole story. With age comes experience and the more perceptive have seen what the social changes have brought us in the past forty years. It is hard to applaud the fact that we now need many more prisons, that homicides have risen from about 160 to nearer 1000, that divorces have reached an all-time high, that parents are afraid to allow their children to walk to school for fear of abduction, and that gangs of young people walk around our cities at weekends armed with knives and too drunk to know what they are doing. Who would have thought that a campaign against young women dying from back-street abortions to escape the shame of illegitimacy would have led to newly formed embryos being regarded as disposable and babies only a few weeks away from an independent existence being killed because they were inconvenient? Who would have thought that a campaign to free women trapped in a loveless and abusive marriage would have led to an automatic assumption that sex was available on a first date and such sexual promiscuity that small-print diseases like syphilis have become a such plague that venereology has changed from a Cinderella specialty to one that attracts big brains and high salaries?
Although heard by only a few, this broadcast has awakened a sleeping giant. Middle class, middle-aged people across the country have found a voice and are surprised to find that many people share their view. Of course, there is a backlash. Thousands of young people have signed up on Facebook to the opinion that Brand and Ross are funny and should be defended. A generation war is in the offing.
At the heart of the matter is the BBC. To my generation the BBC was at the center of the Establishment. It was the voice of Authority. Affectionately known as Auntie, you could rely on it for honesty, impartiality, truth, and how to make a space-suit from two washing-up liquid containers and a few sheets of sticky-backed plastic. It may have seemed staid and a little behind fashion, but all the better for it. Others could push back boundaries; we could enjoy the Black and White Minstrels on the BBC.
The BBC has changed. Many regard it as the HQ of the Politically Correct. "Although only 7% of the British have dark-colored skin," they say, "BBC presenters on television represent the London norm which is nearer 40%. However, they all speak with an Oxford accent, except on radio where regional accents are mandatory in order to demonstrate ethnic diversity. Irish and Scottish accents are prominent."
They complain that the BBC favors homosexuality over heterosexuality, Islam over Christianity or Judaism, the European Union over America, Global Warming enthusiasts over sceptics, Palestine over Israel and Nu-Labor over the Conservatives.
There are whole websites given over to attacking the BBC. One constant complaint is that the TV license fee amounts to a tax that funds all this unpleasantness It is impossible to own a television without funding the BBC’s output. I’m not sure that I go along with this. Among license fee payers are people who enjoy Ross and Brand, people who enjoy ‘Eastenders’ or ‘The Antiques Roadshow’ or endless cookery and house redecorating or gardening or mindless breakfast shows. Others only watch football or dramatized Charles Dickens or News shows or Detective Dramas. We all have to pay for what we don’t like in order to watch what we do. If you don’t like TV you don’t have to watch anything or own a set. I think it is not that, that offends; it is the sense that offensive programming is going out ‘in my name’ that upsets people, just as the invasion of Iraq offended them. More than a million people marched in protest against the Iraq war. It was a minority, to be sure, and the minority must accept the will of the majority, but they can still feel offended that there support is assumed.
It will be interesting to see whether the Ross-Brand affair is just a storm in a teacup, or whether the protesters, now having wind in their sails, will affect a change in broadcasting policy.