Lewd Calling

Ever get the feeling that society is being taken for a ride; the sort of trip where the scenery at the side moves rather than the riders; and that ultimately when it is all over we will be back right where we started? On one level despite a livid society choking on its own apoplexy, it is difficult for me to get excited by the ongoing brouhaha arising from the ‘lewd’ BBC Radio 2 phone call made by Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross to Andrew Sachs and which was played on the ‘Russell Brand Show’. On another level I feel nagging concern at the modern day equivalent of book burning that is so evident in the general outcry, the incendiary intent underscored by the director general of the BBC, Mark Thompson, cutting short a holiday to return and decide upon what octane level to apply.

The ‘lewd’ phone call was both distasteful and tasteless. Brand’s use of intimate details private to himself and Georgina Baillie, the granddaughter of Andrew Sachs, was a serious intrusion into a sphere of life in need of greater protection from public encroachment. Yet this fails to explain how something on the scale of a national broadcasting emergency throughout Britland has emerged as a result of it. I don’t recall the same frenzied intensity in response to the police murder of Jean Charles de Menezes. And despite that summary execution being a much more heinous crime than what was inflicted by the Radio 2 ‘lewd’ call, cop boss Ian Blair was neither sin binned nor sent off for recycling as quickly or ignominiously as Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand. The departure of Brand, the suspension of Ross and the resignation of Radio 2 Controller Lesley Douglas, combined, seems a hyper response to a hyper-inflated news story.

This is an issue that has spiralled out of all proportion. It is estimated that out of 400,000 listeners only 2 complained at the time, one of whom was Andrew Sachs. Within a short time of the red tops having sensationalised the event the BBC had recorded 30,000 complaints. This grossly exponential rise was arguably less the result of genuine public concern and more that of a red top induced feeding frenzy.

Shock broadcasting is today part of the popular culture. Whether the cost or benefit of a secular society it comes with the turf that is no longer hallowed ground. Many presenters or talk show hosts have made their names largely on their ability to shock and cause controversy on the airways. Still, rather than it being something which the snobs indulge in at the expense of great unwashed it is the introduction to the studio of the language, banter, vulgarity and aggressive styles of discourse that can be found up and down Ireland or Britain at most times of the day but particularly in the evening – or on building sites. It is the displacement of the hi-brow elitist with the earthy democratic-popular. Whether it is assimilation or subversion is discussion for another day. Years ago the tone of broadcasting was ever so formal and polite. Hence the preferred term ‘BBC English’ over and above the more regional variants: ‘jolly good, old bean, dear boy. Frightfully sorry but it is now time to conclude with some thoughts for today from the vicar.’ And anyone left standing after that and still capable of listening to the vicar, well, they do deserve the joyous afterlife promised by the reverend.

The progressive discarding of old broadcasting techniques is not without value. In a different context, one of the more interesting exchanges I have viewed in a while was that between broadcaster Bill O’Reilly and politician Barney Frank over the implosion of the credit system in the US. It is not the sort of stuff we see on either Irish or British television, which is unfortunate because I felt better informed after it. It was a cathartic experience where the difficult question was asked in the most explosive of tones. The BBC’s Hard Talk is namby-pamby by comparison.

Nor is it, as the radical blogger Mick Hall argues, that the two culprits in the Sachs saga are just nodding heads employed ‘for no better reason than the media has portrayed and tagged them as celebs … (who) … can normally be relied on to keep to a script.’ In this view they are nothing other than ventriloquist puppets. That I find Ross boring does nothing to invalidate the view that Hall’s critique could as readily be made to work against his argument in that it can as easily apply to a number of mundane characters void of any real talent who are thrust upon listeners, readers and viewers for no other reason than political correctness.

For sure, there is nonchalance indistinguishable from contempt permeating managerial attitudes at the BBC, but Paul Gambaccini is closer to the mark in locating it in the practice of determining that people with a strong background in television can be simply switched to radio. This is not a matter of turf wars and people protecting their patch. The practice is not only technically wrong but it completely undermines the professionalism and the layered accumulated experience painstakingly acquired by radio personalities over decades of work. The idea that those who work in the purely audible rather than visual end of broadcasting are those with good faces for radio is barely television snobbery tarted up as innovative professionalism.

The quality of broadcasting will hardly be impinged upon if we never hear from Jonathan Ross or Russell Brand again. Unfortunately, it would not be their departure but the forces shaping it that pose a serious threat to public understanding. For those genuinely revolted by the actions of Brand and Ross, be careful what you wish for.

1 comment:

  1. Smoke and mirrors it seems to me..lets have some beneign controversey over two questionable talents..blow it completly out of proportion and plaster all over the media....celebrity watching and worship is the new "opium of the masses"...I am living in America and they have fine tuned it over here....celebrity magazines have quadrupled since 9/11..coincidence,I think not.Total distraction from the true crimes being committed by governments and their agents.