What to make of the BBC Brand/Ross blow-out? It could show the power of traditional media to use digital media to whip up a firestorm, with all the political and cultural volatility implied, or it could indicate a shift in social attitudes and expectations in the wake of the credit crunch.
The role of Associated Newspapers and the Mail in creating – constructing – the story is well documented in an article in the Guardian. Given the ten day gap between the programme’s broadcast and its emergence as “news”, this is clearly not innocuous. The article claims that Brand’s response to the initial coverage – which was to remind listeners of the Mail’s record on Hitler – had the effect of inflaming editor-in-chief Paul Dacre.
I’m not a fan of Brand, and I think his phone messages were unfunny (I’ll come back to this), but he was right to point out that the Mail has form here – and in fact the form was worse than Brand described it. (And not just on Hitler, come to that).
The original two complaints (elsewhere stated as five, in an article by Ian Jack that mentions Thomas Hobbes and Henri Bergson) sound about right to me; I spent a year in the late ’80s producing the viewer response programme Right to Reply in the late 80s, and used to have to study broadcast duty logs. The internet has made complaining easier since then, but the profusion of channels means that channels are better at attracting their intended audience, and also better at screening out people who won’t enjoy the content.
But even the fury of the British tabloid press and their owners in pursuit of an anti-BBC story does not transform a handful of complaints into more than 30,000 – not even when compounded by the Corporation’s zen-like approach to crisis management.
There’s something else going on here, and I think it is this: that one of the outcomes of the credit crunch is that the sight of the rich and famous kicking the rest of us has become more repugnant. We had a clue of this change in the public mood in that 24 hours around the bank bail-out when it seemed that Fred Goodwin, having dragged the RBS to the edge of bankruptcy through his reckless management, was still thinking of holding out for his bonus even as the bank was nationalised. (LloydsTSB’s present plans to pay its bonuses may yet also spark the same public ire, though not with the same enthusiastic support of the Mail or the Sun.)
It is the misfortune of Brand and Ross to get their timing dead wrong. By any objective standards, the bankers have done more harm and been more lavishly rewarded, but it was their misfortune to be standing in plain light when the financiers who should be getting this public wrath had retreated to their villas. And, of course, it’s Ross’ £6m annual salary that joins this together: a totemic rag to media owners who would like to dismantle the BBC, but also a visible reminder to us that the rich are different from the rest of us, and not just because they earn more money. (One of the problems of salaries this large is that they’re easy to mock and difficult to comprehend: but if Ross earned in a year the £120,000 or so he earns every week he would still be in the top 1% band of UK income).
There’s one other story in here as well, about the purpose of comedy. You don’t have to be a fan of Trevor Griffiths’ fine (if neglected) play The Comedians to believe that comedy is not just about making people laugh. It should also tell us a truth – about ourselves, about our society, even sometimes (gasp!) tell truth to power.
Ricky Gervais’ television series have done this well – making viewers uncomfortable at the same time as making them laugh; so has The Thick of It. There was a moment of truth on The News Quiz last week when Sandi Toksvig made a sharp comment involving a memory pill and Peter Mandelson.
When people worry about whether the BBC Trustees will now impose guidelines on comedy which prevent performers and writers from taking risks, this is what they mean: will it be allowed to tell us things about ourselves and our rulers which are uncomfortable? This is where, say, media-inflamed rows about the work of Chris Morris differ sharply, since Morris inflames because he uses comedy to show us the way things work. In comparison, let’s face it: bragging about shagging to an answerphone doesn’t really cut it.