This is the sort of intro Jonathan Ross used all the time on his Saturday Radio 2 show, before he was hysterically pulled off air by Mark Thompson last week in the Andrew Sachs row. I like “Here’s the thing” as an intro – it’s kind of American, a bit crass and ungrammatical but it absolutely lets you the listener know there’s a “thing” coming. The smile, if there’s one to be had, is in hearing what “the thing” is – it could be a piece of mindless trivia or a thought so profound that even Oxford-educated, staunch Catholic Mark Thompson hasn’t had it, standing on the side of a smouldering Mount Etna as he supposedly was last Monday while thousands of Britons were phoning the BBC to complain about what they’d read about in the Mail on Sunday and Sunday Telegraph.
So here’s the thing. I am bang in the middle of the target audience for Jonathan Ross’ erstwhile Radio 2 show. A late thirty-something mother of two, invariably at home or in the car on a Saturday morning with the radio on. I try to take care of my kids; I get stressed out by stuff; I like a laugh; I swear a lot although I try to observe decorum; I am sometimes hungover; I like some things; I hate a lot of other things. Blah di blah blah blah. Even on a blog I’m not going to definitively list my credo.
But because of the bile of a few journalists and editors who brought the public’s attention to a broadcast which precisely two people had complained about when they heard it, I cannot now listen to Jonathan Ross on a Saturday for at least the next three months nor can I try to stay awake until his final guest appears on the pre-recorded Friday Night with Jonathan Ross. That pisses me off. I might even complain to the BBC.
Those responsible for Ross’ downfall (I’m ignoring Russell Brand here because I’m not that familiar with his work apart from his Booky Wook which was quite entertaining) say one of two things about his suspension from the airwaves. Either Ross has done something unspeakable in the supposed phone calls to actor Andrew Sachs and deserves the punishment. Or Ross needed to be brought down a peg or two and deserves this punishment.
The idea of bringing Ross down a peg or two is all about how much he’s paid and how ubiquitous he is. Let’s go back to June 2006 when the then BBC 1 controller Peter Fincham signed Ross to the BBC for a further three years. At the time, the Mirror reported Ross would earn £6m a year under the new deal. That has now become gospel, though Ross himself has said it’s not that much and a BBC entertainment source has said the BBC is paying Ross substantially less than commercial rivals (C4, ITV) had offered him to jump ship from the BBC.
I was in the room at the Rose d’Or TV festival in Montreux in 2001 when the BBC signed Johnny Vaughan (tragically) for an exclusive deal and tabloid journalists wanted to know how much Vaughan would earn. Obviously, Vaughan and the various execs present refused to get into the detail, instead asking one femail journalist, the leader of the inquisition, how much she earnt. She replied with good grace – but still didn’t get the info out of Vaughan or the Beeb.
When the TV types had left the room, the leading hack said something like “I reckon it’s about £4m a year” and everyone else agreed. They wrote it down, the next day the stories were published and the figure passed into history.
But even if those semi-made up figures were true, the budget a broadcaster attaches to a show such as Norton’s or Ross’ includes production fees such as studio and crew hire. The presenter takes a good chunk of the budget but not all of it. Ross was supposed – according to that article back in 2006 – to be earning £530,000 a year for his Radio 2 show. So he’s getting another £5.5m a year for the Friday chat show and Film 2008? I don’t think so.
All of that is what the point is not. The point is, the BBC should pretty quickly and pretty loudly puncture the half-truths around these presenter salary stories that go into the collective consciousness (ie the electronic archive of newspapers). If the general public but particularly a handful of malicious journalists didn’t have such a bee in their bonnet about Ross being the BBC’s “£18m man” they wouldn’t have been so desperate to bring him down last week.
Ross is not, as one TV correspondent said to me last week, arrogant and a prima donna. At least, he doesn’t come across that way on the radio. If he talks about his own life, and he often does in skits about having work done on the house, looking after his kids etc etc, he’s always gracious enough to acknowledge he’s rich as Croesus and can afford to either stay in a hotel or has lots of paid help with the family etc etc. He doesn’t sound arrogant, he sounds honest.
And I shall not be jumping aboard the now fashionable media bandwagon bearing those who say Ross and Brand’s broadcast at the heart of this row was puerile, disgraceful or whatever. Show me a journalist in the country who isn’t puerile and disgraceful as they sit in the comfort of their newsroom calling people a bunch of cunts who have it coming to them in whatever context.
Sometimes people are disgraceful. Particularly journalists working in a quickfire, usually macho culture where decisions are made under pressure to get words and pictures on a page, screen or wireless. Sometimes language is offensive; sometimes it helps dispel the reality of a situation, as when a news editor I worked with yelled across the room about an obituary “What page are we putting the stiff on?” Clearly, to some people, that “stiff” was a much loved and sadly missed person. But it still makes me laugh and context is everything as is separation of target audiences, as any economist knows.
Last but not least, the BBC must surely dwell on the precise timing of the various interventions in the row in its future rumblings on this whole fracas (an inquiry is being led by BBC “head of music and audio” Tim Davie and is due to report on 20 November. Let’s hope its first conclusion will be that we can still call audio radio).
It’s not good enough for Thompson to protest that the BBC issued a full and frank apology the day after the Mail on Sunday’s story broke. A named BBC executive – Thompson himself – didn’t speak out until Wednesday morning, after both David Cameron and Gordon Brown had waded into the row on Tuesday. As with Crowngate, Thompson was very much reacting to the tidal wave of complaint, not anticipating it which doesn’t sit well with his categoric rejection of Ross’ and Brand’s comments. If he thought they were that bad he should have said so immediately, not waited for the politicians and press to set the agenda.