A Distinct Lack of Backbone

Standpoint's Mole in the BBC exposes an organisation where inexperience is king and managers hate to judge

Many commentators evinced shocked surprise at the ineptitude displayed by the BBC in its handling of the fallout from that phone call. But for anyone familiar with the inner workings of the Corporation, its spavined response to the Jonathan Ross/Russell Brand outrage was entirely predictable. For the BBC has for decades groomed a generation of invertebrate managers and the comedians inadvertently presented them with the kind of issue they are least equipped to deal with: they were put on the spot and asked to make a moral judgment. A moral judgment! How cruel to demand such a thing from men and women who have made careers out of avoiding such dilemmas.

But, paradoxically, as things turned out, it could be that in those two trash culture exemplars, Ross and Brand, the BBC and its Director-General, Mark Thompson, have been presented with the perfect opportunity to sluice out the stables.

For one upshot of the affair is the way that Thompson’s internal standing and authority have been enhanced. Strikingly, it wasn’t until he rushed hotfoot back from his holiday that any semblance of order was restored. His prompt and unequivocal statement condemning the two performers stilled the rising sense of panic in the Corporation’s upper echelons. His stock has risen.

To understand how the BBC came to be in such a mess, it is necessary to look at its day-to-day operation. For any new recruit to the Corporation, it can come as something of a surprise to find how much responsibility can be foisted on inexperienced shoulders. A young producer can find herself talking to very prominent people and making instant decisions about who should and who should not be put on air. That involves a lot of trust. There is a safeguard, of course, and it can be summarised in six words: “when in doubt, refer it up.”

If something touches on an unusual sensitivity, there is always someone more senior who is standing there waiting for the buck to be passed. But the system works only if senior people are sensitised to what might upset the audience. Radio Two’s management, it seems, were so bewitched by the degenerate duo that they showed every sign of not understanding what they had done wrong when the story was first picked up by the Mail on Sunday. As it slowly dawned that calling up a septuagenarian and shouting down the phone about going to bed with his granddaughter is not everyone’s idea of funny, the system started to react. The problem was referred up the chain of command – and nothing happened.

There was a simple reason for that: the management chain in Light Entertainment is pretty short – unlike, for instance, News and Current Affairs, where there might be as many as ten steps between a producer and the lofty personage called Head of News – so very rapidly it landed on the desk of the Radio Two Controller, Lesley Douglas. But Russell Brand was her special pet. She appointed him and earned much praise for offering up such “edgy” entertainment; she was the last person who was going to disown or discipline him.

So Ms Douglas, under pressure from a now thoroughly alarmed senior management, referred it up the next management ladder. And for days they were all struck dumb. What, you might ask, was the Deputy Director-General, Mark Byford, doing while the fires of public outrage burned ever brighter? Not a lot, it would seem. Not a peep from him. He could have (many would say should have) stepped in and spoken before then – after all, isn’t that what deputies are for? – but he didn’t. Which set the scene for Thompson to arrive, like the US Cavalry, to rescue the situation at the very last.

And that is the truly revealing thing about the whole episode: the way in which successive tiers of BBC managers baulked when asked to condemn the broadcast. They just couldn’t do it. To most outsiders, it seemed a pretty open and shut case; the phone call was beyond – far, far beyond – anything acceptable as harmless fun. You’d have thought it was not asking a lot to get some panjandrum somewhere along the command chain to have the cojones to say it was wrong, plain and simple. But then that underestimates the decadence of the current BBC. One experienced interviewer, Brian Hanrahan, quizzing a politician about the affair, began his question: “Everyone in the BBC says it’s a one-off affair…” Perhaps they do think that but, if so, they haven’t been listening or, if they have, they must be inured to degenerate humour to a remarkable degree.

Your correspondent, quite by chance, happened upon the Russell Brand show one evening before all this happened. I was channel-hopping in the car – Radio Four, a boring drama, 5Live, a football phone-in, on Three Bartok was stinking up the airwaves, so I turned on Radio Two. Brand and Ross were jesting away. I’m not claiming word-for-word accuracy here, but you’ll get the gist. Jester One: “My mother gave me an orange to help me learn about cunnilingus. And it started squirting juice!” Jester Two: “That’s when you know you’ve done it right!” I was actually shocked: having worked in newsrooms all my life, I’ve hardly led a sheltered life, but I was astounded that such dirty badinage could be broadcast.

After all, broadcasting is different from private conversation. You must hold back because you don’t know – can’t know – who is listening. Under the “brilliant” Ms Douglas, that useful old safeguard seems to have been comprehensively junked.

Which brings us back to the point about what happens now. There is an opportunity here if the BBC chooses to grasp it. For four decades, comedy on the BBC has become increasingly untrammelled; it began in a small way back in the ’60s, the start of the great satire boom. The boundaries were pushed harder and harder until almost anything was allowable as long as the “right” targets were selected. You can make any filthy joke or snide, unkind remark you like about the Queen or Margaret Thatcher or any “right-wing” target. Try doing the same about Barack Obama or Nelson Mandela or any of the specially-favoured and protected client groups of the Left and, I guarantee it, your feet will hardly touch the ground before you find yourself deposited on the pavement outside Broadcasting House.

The effect of this has been corrosive. Legitimate authority has been undermined by a motley collection of “anti-establishment” comedians. There has been no antidote and no restraint. Anyone who suggests reining them in has been tarred and feathered as a killjoy and arbitrary censor.

However the Ross and Brand affair has been salutary. The public outrage was genuine, the message unmistakable. Mark Thompson – a decent man, rather boy-scoutish by instinct – showed himself to best advantage in the crisis.

By acting as deus ex machina, he stamped his authority on matters. He now has a unique opportunity to bring a sense of decency back to the BBC’s comedy output. But the main question remains: will he have the courage to take it?

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