Written by Radio

Responsibility In Front Of A Microphone

In the last couple of days we’ve heard plenty about a “prank” that Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross played on actor Andrew Sachs a couple of weeks ago on Brand’s Radio 2 Saturday evening programme. As part of a pre-recorded show, when Sachs didn’t answer his phone for a pre-arranged interview, Brand (new book – Articles Of Faith) and studio guest Ross (new book – Why Do I Say These Things?) made what can only be said to be insulting comments to Sachs’ answerphone about his granddaughter.
For whatever reason, it took a while before the story reached the dizzying heights of the Mail. Brand “apologised” on his show the following Saturday (just gone), although tore into the Mail for its support of fascists during the thirties.
Now the BBC has formally apologised to the 78 year-old Sachs.
The whole incident really does leave a nasty taste in the mouth and is only the latest in a series of “stunts” where highly paid DJs have used their microphones to malicious ends. Up until now, none of them has been publicly chastised. They’re big stars, after all, and they’re unlikely to face fines that a commercial station might.
It would be unwise to get into any legal ramifications of this particular case, although it’s notable that Sachs is probably quite reliant on the BBC for much of his voice and radio work.
This reminds me of a dark period of Chris Evans’ history when he worked on Radio 1. He spent a week broadcasting from Scotland, and in an especially petulant episode he mocked Moray Firth’s Tich McCooey, mocking the DJs salary compared to that of his own team. The details are to be found in the excellent book about Radio 1 of the period – The Nation’s Favourite by Simon Garfield (Did I lend you my copy? I can’t find it). The whole episode left a nasty taste in the mouth.
More recently, we’ve had Chris Moyles escape censure for using the word “gay” in a derogatory manner. Seemingly, because kids use it in the playground, it was harmless. Playgrounds are full of unpleasant racist and homophobic language. That doesn’t mean that it’s OK to use it on-air.
And in a less well reported episode, that Sony award winning doyen of 6 Music, George Lamb, acted like a school bully after legendary Kinks frontman Ray Davies decided that he didn’t want to get involved in a specious “interview” – sample questions “what’s your favourite vowel.” When Davies thought better of the interview and tried to use the excuse of a poor line to get out of the interview, refusing to continue it when called back, Lamb used it as an excuse to blast Davies and make feeble jokes at the man’s expense.
In all these incidents, we’ve got people irresponsibly making use of their fame and audience to brow-beat others into submission. Just because they think that the radio equivalent of kids playing knock down ginger is funny, doesn’t mean that it is, or is fair.
But is it funny?
Well that really isn’t the point. If I pour paint on you, some people might find it funny. You might not enjoy it. Particularly if you weren’t a willing participant in my “pour red paint over you” stunt. So even if I promise to replace your clothes after the event, you shouldn’t have to put up with my juvenile prank.
In the Brand/Ross incident, the programme wasn’t live and therefore someone thought it was OK to transmit it. The BBC is promising an inquiry.
But will any of the DJs responsible have their knuckles rapped in a meaningful way? Ross is the BBC’s highest paid entertainer, and Brand is the up and coming star. Moyles is the leading light of Radio 1 and has avoided censure, and I’ve not heard a thing about Lamb getting told off.
What I really hope that it’s not just the “editorial” figure who approved this that gets the blame. It’s the easiest thing in the world to blame some producer. Should they accept some blame? Absolutely. But when you’re handling your network’s top talent, it’s not as simple as that. We’ve seen producers get fired before over some of the faked competitions. But they’re not the only ones responsible. Presenters must also take responsibility, and it doesn’t matter how feted they might be.
Will DJs be fined or suspended for a meaningful period? Will Brand or Ross make a proper sincere apology without concerning themselves with the political views of a paper seventy years ago (I detest the Mail as much as the next person, but that’s irrelevant in this instance)? Next time Radio 1 tackles bullying will they have a leg to stand on if DJs on a sister network are getting away with precisely that?
The real shame is that they’re both reasonably talented individuals. Ross can and does make good documentaries. Film 200x is well worth watching. Ross’s radio programme can be funny. I must admit I find his chat show persona wearing. The nadir was surely his cringeworthy “interview” with Gwyneth Paltrow earlier this year. It really didn’t come across as funny in the slightest, and while Ross went down in my estimation following that episode Paltrow’s professionalism increased my respect for her.
Brand meanwhile is someone who had previously left me cold. I admit that I was beginning to warm to him slightly, but this episode has has significantly decreased that.
I expect to see some firm and appropriate action – something beyond just a producer being reprimanded. And some sincere apologies.