11.49am Wednesday 29 October 2008 and news has just broken that the BBC director general has decided to pull Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand off the air while their lewd prank call to Andrew Sachs is investigated. Such is the scale of this row today. On Monday it was being covered on a few websites; today every single national newspaper has the story on its front page. At the last count, according to Radio 2’s 11am news bulletin, complaints to the BBC had reached 18,000.
Jeremy Vine is shortly to feature a discussion on the whole thing, no doubt inflating the issue further. But the BBC and Radio 2 can hardly avoid such a massive story, even if it is at the centre of the storm. I can feel Stuart Maconie’s nervousness, covering this week for Ken Bruce on Radio 2, as he hastily backtracks on every slight joke at someone’s expense to point out that it is in fact a joke and no offence is intended. Nerves must be truly wracked at BBC Towers.
But Thompson’s decision – announced in a statement, issued while Thompson is on holiday, presumably trying to enjoy half term like the rest of us – to suspend Ross and Brand from broadcasting duties is spineless in the extreme. Just like the excessive hand-wringing over the so-called Crowngate affair last year, in which the BBC showed misleading footage of the Queen to a bunch of journalists, Thompson has crumbled too soon.
I know Thompson was effectively brought in in the wake of Greg Dyke, who was bounced out of the BBC for having the temerity to preside over a broadcast that questioned the government’s claims on Iraq’s weapons of massive destruction. You’d expect a more conciliatory approach from any successor to Dyke. But the BBC needs a stronger champion than it’s currently got in Thompson.
Given the scale of the reaction to this story about Sachs, Ross and Brand (whipped up the media, of course), Thompson should of course have broken his holiday silence to issue a full and frank apology. But he should then have gone on to say there is a due process for such complaints, allowing the inquiry which is due to end on 20 November to take place. Then it should be decided what to do with Ross, Brand and the various execs including Radio 2 controller Lesley Douglas who sanctioned the broadcast. Even Peter Mandelson was investigated before being ceremoniously ejected from the cabinet on the last few occasions.
Once again, Thompson has been too previous with the cat-o-nine-tails and let MPs and his own media bully him into a hasty decision. I for one won’t be listening to whoever sits in for Ross on Radio 2 on Saturday and I hope the crew who were expecting to record Jonathan Ross’ chat show as usual tomorrow night will still get paid, despite having no show to produce this week.