Should Jonathan Ross be sacked?
So, after offensive and insulting, crude and vulgar phone calls to actor Andrew Sachs, Russell Brand has resigned, the controller of Radio 2 (Lesley Douglas) has resigned, and Jonathan Ross is suspended for twelve weeks without pay - costing him, some estimate, one and a half million pounds. The affair has dominated the news for almost a week; here are my thoughts.
1. Many have expressed surprise at the prominence this story has been given in a day when we're fighting wars, facing financial crises and on the verge of the US election. Well yes; perspective is important. But we shouldn't think that, because these other things are happening, anything goes on our radio shows.
2. It's been repeatedly said that there are different views of what is tasteful. True enough - but what Ross and Brand did on this occasion is actually illegal.
3. One thing that has surprised me is the attention given to whether the item should have been broadcast at the expense of whether the phone calls should have been made. Of course, broadcasting the program compounds the offence and makes the producers guilty as well as the presenters. But even if the producers had blocked the program, the calls had still been made. Ross and Brand would still have needed to be dealt with.
4. The BBC has repeatedly made the point that only two complaints were made on the day and a further three in the week following. The tens of thousands of complaints only came after the newspapers got involved and may well have been made by people who didn't hear the program. Well, again - true enough. But so what? Many people of taste and decency simply wouldn't listen to a Russell Brand radio program; they know what they would be likely to hear. As is often pointed out, we do have an 'off' switch on our radios. What is significant is that a number of those who did listen, and presumably do like Brand, were still offended. Those of us who did not listen are still entitled to express our outrage (or our approval for that matter) once the matter is brought to our attention.
5. It has been repeatedly said that these men are paid to be risqué and that comedy must continually push out the boundaries. But no-one has asked: why? Sure, comedy is in danger of becoming anaemic. But the idea that the boundaries need to be 'pushed out' takes for granted either that there ought not to be any boundaries or that there ought to be boundaries but the present ones are too restrictive. Pushing at boundaries will continually lower standards, it will never raise them; it will make more and more outrageous and filthy material acceptable.
6. This is just what can be seen to have happened here. Again, the point has been made that Radio 1 listeners, by a 2:1 majority, approve of the program - or at least did not find it offensive. Yes; and who are Radio 1 listeners? By and large, the younger set. The set that have grown up used to the crude and offensive style that Ross is apparently so proud of. Of course these folks are not going to be as offended by a further lowering of standards: their base line was lower to begin with.
7. David Cameron has not covered himself with glory by his intervention. Is it two years ago now that Ross interviewed Cameron and quizzed him about his masturbatory fantasies? Cameron should have left the interview at that point. Yes, he would have been lampooned for it. But he would have made the point that some things are not simply 'unacceptable' but also that they are not going to be accepted. Ross might - just might - have seen some writing on the wall. For Cameron to criticise now is like saying 'I knew the stable door was open and the horse would bolt eventually.' You should have shut it, man!
8. It's been interesting to see Chris Evans, plainly upset about Ms. Douglas' resignation, choosing his words very carefully. That is not a skill he is renowned for! But the BBC website quotes him 'We don't feel like we've been picked on undeservedly. It was a huge mistake and we all wish it hadn't happened.'
9. Has Mark Thompson - Director General of the BBC - gone far enough, or should Ross be sacked? I find that a difficult question to answer. On the one hand, Ross is genuinely talented, his shows command large audiences (and the BBC has a duty to bear that in mind) and this is only one incident. On the other hand, this is not only one incident (Ross has been warned before, and Thompson has said that Ross should consider this his final warning); Ross made the most offensive remarks on the program and it's strange that he should therefore be the one to keep his job; and - in the end - the only way to prove that 'no-one is above the law' (as Thompson said) is to, well, prove it. However, I suspect that the BBC has gone as far as it could without risking a massively damaging lawsuit from Ross himself. And even for Ross, a £1.5million loss is going to be painful.
10. So, on balance, yes Mark Thompson - well done. But please, now, don't rest on your laurels: do watch this man. Please ensure that the boundaries of comedy are pushed - back. It won't mean that nothing beyond 'I love Lucy' will be acceptable; but if it did, that would be preferable than where we seem to be heading.