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Entries in Georgina Baillie (1)

Thursday
Oct302008

Bad for the Brand? Russell, Jonathan and the BBC

The guy across the road in our corner shop reliably informed me that only two people complained when Brand and Ross left their inappropriate messages on Manuel's - sorry, Andrew Sachs' - answer phone. A week later, the Mail on Sunday kicked up a fuss about it. And now, after most of the UK press have gone mad for this story, there are apparently 27,000 or so people moaning to the BBC about it.

My first thought on it all is this: do these people have nothing better to complain about? (Mind you, I probably have something better to do than blog about it).

My second thought: do these journalists have nothing better to write about? I mean seriously. We're in the middle of a credit crunch. America might be about to elect its first black president. Afghanistan needs a lot of work. Peter Mandelson's back in town and looking rather peculiar in ermine. But what does The Times, that so-called 'serious' paper, the paper of record etc., go and put on its front page? A story about Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand making silly phone calls.

These stories have certainly had results. Brand's gone. Woss is in the doghouse for three months. BBC Radio 2 Controller Lesley Douglas has resigned. And senior BBC staff are having to apologise profusely on all their competitors' stations. The Beeb has taken a big hit here.

To my mind, the story that we should be focussing on is not the incident but the reaction. I'll come to that in a minute, but ok, let's look at the incident.

Two fairly funny guys make some inappropriate phone calls to a man who played a fairly funny Spanish waiter in the 70s. The calls involve a reference to the fact that one of them had slept with his granddaughter, who, incidentally, describes herself as Voluptua, a 'satanic slut'. (Grandpa was in Fawlty Towers - one of my favourite shows - so I expect he's got a sense of humour). The funny guys apologise, albeit a bit badly, and slowly. Nobody notices really - until the Mail on Sunday drags up the story a week later. And suddenly people all over the country are 'extremely offended' by this 'completely unacceptable' behaviour.

Well, if those sensitive souls are that easily offended, maybe they should consider some other BBC output which, to my mind anyway, is far more offensive - but which hasn't led to any resignations (that I know of anyway). I'm talking about that wheelchair sketch in Little Britain: it has probably caused much more distress to disabled people and their carers than any ill-judged phone call.

(Or perhaps, if you are particularly touchy, you could complain that Sach's 70s portrayal of a Spanish waiter was a bit racist - I liked it though).

In essence, this was an error of judgement. Brand's producer should have been more on the ball, the people involved should have apologised to the poor satanic slut in question (and Manuel) a bit quicker and we should have all moved on with a collective yawn.

Ok, so that's the incident dealt with. Now for the reaction, which is the real story.

When the press gets its knickers in a twist about something as trivial as this story, the old 'cui bono' question has to be asked. Who benefits from all this hoo-ha? You might think it was just a case of newspapers employing the age-old tactic of trying to sell newspapers by publishing sensational stories on their front pages (at the expense of proper ones), and there may be some truth to this.

In my view though, there is more to it than that; something more profound. I think a large section of the British media hates the BBC. They hate it for two reasons: commercial and ideological. And I feel this hatred is why they have blown this dodgy phone call saga out of all proportion.

Commercially, the BBC represents a massive threat to Murdoch's empire, particularly his TV one. It's arguably the only media outlet that represents any substantial threat to Sky and the Murdoch hegemony. This, I think, is partly why the Murdoch-owned Times ran a front-page story on Brand and Ross. It shouldn't have been a front-page story; not in these troubled times. Perhaps when The Times ran this story as its main headline it gave it a gravitas it didn't deserve, and perhaps this was intentional.

I feel, however, that opposition to the BBC on ideological grounds is the more powerful driving force behind all this. The BBC represents something that directly challenges the views of the UK's extraordinarily right-wing press: it is a highly successful, publicly-owned and publicly-funded organisation. Post Thatcher and Blair it is one of the very few public services that still exist in Britain - and certainly the only one to be routinely called 'world-class'. Its existence is anathema to the right-wing press; they regularly call for it to be privatised.

So it's hardly surprising that the press would want to make a big deal out of this. They have, subtly or otherwise, done all they can to undermine an institution which they view as a threat, and diminished its standing.

In reality, the BBC is this: a much-loved institution that we all share in, and which produces some of the world's best TV and radio. It's a shame that its reputation is suffering unduly for this storm in a teacup.

On a final note, what I find the most amusing thing about all this is that Andrew Sach's granddaughter Georgina Baillie is now (nearly) a household name. Frankly I'd never heard of her before - maybe these phone calls have been the best thing to ever happen to her career. And I never knew what Manuel's real name was either.

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