The furore over that broadcast by Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross has several subsidiary themes worth a second thought. The following are my second thoughts, offered for reflection and not pushed as anything other than how I think and feel about all this.
Much is made of the fact that the night of the broadcast only 1 complaint was registered, with a few more the next day. Then a tabloid paper ran the story as front page news and the complaint count took off. By last night, with Brand's resignation and Ross's suspension confirmed and the Radio Two controller resigned, the tally reached 30,000+. This has led to a backlash suggesting that since most of those complaining hadn't heard the broadcast, and never listen to the programme, their sense of offence is hypocrisy and their complaints invalid.
Sorry. But having had full and unchallenged reports on the BBC itself of what WAS said, and to whom, and that it was broadcast, comes as information that entitles any responsible person to challenge the morality, even the legality, of such misjudgement of taste. When would an episode of suggestive crudity and thoughtless comment on potential suicide EVER be acceptable? And in what other circumstances could such a series of messages be left on an answering machine without incurring prosecution?
Further. Even if this episode had not been broadcast - what thought was ever given to how such messages on an answering machine would be received by an elderly man who had made the mistake of agreeing to particpate in a show sponsored by the supposedly responsible, publicly funded BBC? Sure the Controller had to resign for approving the broadcast. But had it not been broadcast then presumably that was to be the end of the affair. Not sure that's how I feel - I expect at least a minimal awareness in those entrusted with an audience of millions, of the impact on any individual subjected to their particular brand of 'pushing the edges' comedy. Did no one even consider the possibility that a Grandfather might be offended, and a young woman humiliated, by explicit and obscene references to her sex life?
It is also claimed that it is all about audience. A quick poll of audiences queuing up for BBC recording of programmes revealed a sharp distinction between those attending Never Mind the Buzzcocks and a more sedate crowd queuing for a much less 'pushing the edges' programme. The Buzzcocks folks were unanimous in their opinion that the broadcast was not offensive, and that we all needed to lighten up, and that if you don't like the content of the programme no one forces you to listen to it. But that also ignored the fact that people are victims of such brutal humour, and that the audience's laughter is at someone's expense, which should always be within acceptable moral and humane limits. It also betrays a too often forgotten feature of humour; frequently one of its key components is cruelty, the capacity, even the compulsuon, to laugh at someone else's hurt. Thomas Hobbes that bleak realist was not wrong when he defined laughter as the grimaces of the face when we witness the misfortune of someone else.
Then there is the claim that the furore was all about salary envy. Jonathan Ross is paid £6 million a year to work two days a week for the BBC. To require extremely high standards of professionalism, maturity and reliability in enhancing the reputation of his employer seems to me to be a reasonable, even minimal ask for such a salary. Whether any TV celebrity fronting a twice weekly programme is worth an amount per annum that would pay 240 nurses' salaries is a separate matter. Salary envy is a rather hard charge against those who complained since the BBC is in fact a public service, funded by its own audiences, and is therefore publicly accountable. That public called it to account this week. Implied in that accountability are questions about the judgement of those who agreed to pay such a salary, and who when it went wrong took over a week to deal decisively with it.
All of which said - I listened to all of Russell Brand's statement of apology, and recognise the genuine remorse he expressed. No similar public statement has yet been released by Jonathan Ross. The codes of discipline and professional standards in broadcasting are hard to get right. I for one don't want humour, comedy, satire to be so domesticated that they lose their capacity for important social critique, as important vehicles for presenting alternative perspectives, and their long history of subverting assumptions that can often be oppressive, bigoted, abusive. What they must not do, and certainly not on public broadcasts, is make people targets for precisely that abusive and humiliating ridicule which diminishes and degrades, so that laughter becomes a way of desensitising our humanity.I don't think that was the intent of either the two comedians or the Radio Two Controller - but that they seemed unaware of that consequence suggest the need for some education on the ethical boundaries of humour.