Don’t hang the DJ


Don’t blame the jesters – editorial intelligence should have been evoked to prevent the humiliation renderedby Brand and Ross, writes Peter Molloy.

Let’s disembark from the outrage bus for a moment and put what has developed over the last week in sober perspective.

In leaving a series of highly offensive messages on the answering machine of a well-known prospective radio interviewee, Russell Brand and Jonathon Ross indisputably acted extraordinarily poorly. Subjecting Andrew Sachs to explicit comments regarding Brand’s relationship with the actor’s granddaughter represented a gross breach of personal and professional courtesy, especially considering the fact that the man wasn’t there to respond.

To have compounded that slight by repeating the performance over the course of four separate phone calls was inexcusable in the extreme.

In terms of damage limitation, however, the fallout from Brand and Ross’s badly misfired attempt at hilarity could have ended there, as soon as the pair hung up at the end of the final phone call.

What they had done would still have been exceedingly serious, and – whether or not the media had managed to get hold of the story – a thorough application of both diplomacy and disciplinary sanction would have been required on the part of the BBC to resolve an unedifying situation. That never happened though.

Instead, a series of decisions – the details of which still remain unclear – meant that two days later, rather than being expeditiously erased, therecordings featuring the pair were broadcast nationally on the BBC’s Radio 2. No matter how grievous and serious the initial fault committed by Brand and Ross, it was this step more than any other which enabled controversy to grow exponentially and which established the necessary conditions for the furor that enveloped the station.

Much of the recent commentary over the issue has been disingenuous. It’s enormously difficult to accept at face value, the calculated outrage of some sections of the media in condemning the two presenters. To judge by the commentary provided from certain quarters, one can only feel bemusement at the pitchfork and blazing torches rhetoric employed by some journalists.

It is implied that Brand’s boorish little rhyme about his conquest of Sachs’ granddaughter represents the most shocking profanity that the journalists ever encountered over the course of their professional careers in the media.

Likewise, probe a little beneath the surface and even some of the halos of the victims of the stunt begin to tarnish. The vigorous protestations of Georgina Baillie, the young woman at the centre of the comments, began to ring increasingly hollow towards the end of last week – coming as they did from at least one tabloid where the dancer recounted intimate details of her tryst with Brand.

Even allowing for all of this, the comments made by Brand and his now sheepish partner in crime were deeply unwarranted and objectionable. They should however, be placed in a proper context.

Russell Brand, and to a lesser extent Jonathon Ross, are performers whose stock trades in edgy, risky humour that consciously pushes boundaries. There isn’t anything necessarily wrong with that, even if that particular form of comedy fails to appeal every personal taste.

Profanity and suggestive material have long had a niche in comedy, and can sometimes work to excellent effect. Brand, for one, is a comedian who very knowingly cultivates an irreverent, wild persona – a character that, irrespective of whatever individual opinions of the performer may exist, has self-evidently stood him well professionally.

His latest actions with Ross unquestionably went far beyond risqué humour – if nothing else, they were deeply unfunny and hurtful. However, Brand was not employed by the BBC for the quality of his current affairs analysis or his ability to dissect economic affairs. The comedian had his own radio show, and was allowed to disseminate his particular stamp of humour on Auntie’s airwaves because the BBC deliberately aimed to attract and retain a particular audience demographic.

That aspiration inevitably came with an inherent risk. Brand’s individual style of controversial comedy – while a ratings winner – carried with it the distinct potential to push too far and land the BBC in serious public relations difficulties; a possibility that resoundingly came to pass last week.

The people prepared to take a gamble on the comedian should have accompanied that danger by acting promptly and properly to limit its potential for damage.

Brand was not employed by the BBC for the quality of his current affairs analysis

Ultimate responsibility for what transpired in the corridors of Broadcasting House rests not with the two presenters who blurted obscenities down the phone like a pair of truculent schoolboys practicing their swearing behind the bike shed. It lay with the authorities higher in the BBC hierarchy who permitted that idiocy a public airing.

The single most unsettling aspect of the whole case is that the actions of Brand and Ross did not occur during the transmission of a live radio show, or even during a segment pre-recorded with little time to spare for reflection before broadcast. The phone calls to Andrew Sachs took place on Thursday, October 16, with the intention of including them as part of Brand’s regular slot on the evening of Saturday October 18. In other words, a 48-hour gap existed between the recordings being made and their broadcast – a lifetime in media terms.

That two-day period allowed more than adequate time for the offending segment to be scrutinised and analysed to death by those responsible for approving its airing, an approval they eventually granted.
It is this support, which forms the nucleus of the controversy. What it means is that more than one person with senior executive and editorial authority within the BBC made the decision to allow something, which would almost inevitably cause significant controversy, to go on air.

Editing and shaping the content of a media or entertainment organ does not constitute censorship, but rather is a necessary means of ensuring a consistent, quality output. It should also be an effective method of negating any unwarranted offensiveness or insult. This is a required process, which ensures that opinions and attitudes expressed in a public forum retain an essential element of validity.

Few tears should be shed for Brand and his now financially chastened cohort. Brand’s future prospects will be preciously little dented by the impact of the incident, and it would be naïve in the extreme to assume that this episode will mark the last time the words “Russell Brand” and “controversy” make happy bedfellows in newspaper columns.

Brand’s resignation appeased an angry population, but it should have been accompanied simultaneously, not after a gap of a day, by the resignation of Lesley Douglas – the erstwhile controller of BBC Radio 2 and one of the people with direct responsibility for the process that led to the comedian’s remarks being aired.

It’s too emotive to simply bellow for more heads to roll at the corporation, but in the aftermath of what has happened, serious questions still need to be asked as to how something so patently troublesome was allowed free rein for broadcast.