A robust BBC

Polar bear cubs in the wild or in captivity?

The briefest of posts, because I really want to go out to buy some Christmas stamps, to say how refreshing it was to hear BBC director general Mark Thompson being robust in his defence of the BBC at yesterday’s media select committee hearing.

It may just have been the way the Today programme’s Yesterday in Parliament slot was edited at about 06.45 this morning but Thompson came across as a staunch defender of both Jeremy Clarkson’s right to make a joke and of polar bears to be filmed in different places. If only Thompson had been this good at presenting the context for a situation when the Jonathan Ross/Andrew Sachs row exploded three years ago.

From what I heard on Radio 4 Thomson and BBC chairman Chris Patten expressly told MPs that Clarkson’s “joke” about shooting striking public sector workers in front of their families was a joke. A joke made, they said, as part of a comment on how far the BBC bends over backwards to get balance to any story. If the BBC sacked everyone who offended people with their jokes they wouldn’t have many people working for them. And, said Patten, MPs would have to explain to the many Clarkson and Top Gear fans (there are some) why their favourite presenter was no longer on TV. This, despite 32,000 complaints about Clarkson’s comment.

So different from October 2008 when Ross was suspended for six months after making a joke which only a very few people heard and complained about until the press whipped up a storm of protest. I felt there was no context from the DG back then.

Also amusing was Thompson’s single “no” to the question of whether narration from BBC 1’s Frozen Planet would be re-edited to more accurately suggest that footage of tiny polar bear cubs was filmed in captivity and not in the wild. I have watched all the Frozen Planet episodes and must admit I assumed the bear cubs were wild. At least I didn’t stop watching and wonder where and how the crew had got that remarkable up-close footage of two polar bear cubs feeding from their sleepy mother in a snow den. We had just seen a female polar bear begin to make a den, again I presume in the wild.

I was initially surprised to read this week that the cub footage had been filmed in a zoo but I totally buy the argument that those shots would have been impossible to capture in the wild and I wouldn’t have wanted my viewing pleasure interrupted by an explanatory caption about where the scenes were filmed.

So good on the BBC for being robust and defending its editorial practices. I suspect the fact the BBC got a difficult licence fee settlement from the government a year ago has sharpened its sense of independence and rightly so.


BBC in a pickle over Gaza

It clearly wasn’t enough for BBC director general Mark Thompson to post a defence of the corporation’s decision not to air an appeal for Gazan aid on a BBC News blog on Saturday evening. Noone appeared to have read it. The Sunday papers review on the otherwise execrable Radio 2 Michael Ball show made no mention of Mr Thomson’s defence and neither, clearly, did most of the papers themselves.

Instead Thompson had to bagsy the top slot on Radio 4’s Today programme, at 8.10am, to be grilled by presenter John Humphrys who thankfully didn’t change his acerbic technique even though he was interviewing his ultimate boss.

Thompson’s line appears to be that it would be too one-sided for the BBC to appeal for aid to Gaza and that what’s happening over there is best covered by BBC news programmes. The idea that the BBC was trying to keep its head below the parapet on the weekend that Jonathan Ross came back on air after his three-month suspension has crumbled like so much concrete under heavy artillery.

Now the BBC can justifiably say its own editorial decisions are coming under pressure from outsiders, not least the government which is in favour of the Gaza appeal. But the BBC is a publicly owned, publicly funded broadcaster and as such accountable to anyone and everyone “outside”. Has Thompson decided to get firm over the wrong issue?

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Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand, again

Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand. BBC

So the BBC Trust – that collection of the great and the good who the government appoints to rule the BBC – has today published its conclusions on the famous Russell Brand Show/Jonathan Ross/Andrew Sachs farrago.

In short, the Trust led by affable but somewhat “senior” in age Sir Michael Lyons, has decided that Mr Ross’ comments about Brand effing Sachs’ grand-daughter were “so grossly offensive that there was no justification for its broadcast”. Radio 2 was guilty of failure on three levels: editorial control, allowing the comment to be recorded in the first place; compliance, by letting the comments slip through the checks and balances system for programming; and editorial judgement, by allowing the finished programme to go on air with the offensive remarks still in situ.

But the Trust hasn’t called for any more heads than have already rolled. It says the BBC management’s decision to suspend Ross and accept the resignations of R2 controller Lesley Douglas and presenter Russell Brand were “appropriate”.

Whether you agree that what was said by Ross and Brand was “offensive” or not (I don’t), the BBC Trust’s judgement is as interesting for what it doesn’t say as for what it does. No mention is made of how the BBC responded to the tsunami of complaints which built on Monday 27 October, the day after the Mail on Sunday and later editions of other Sunday newspapers including the Telegraph had both brought the comments to the general public’s attention and encouraged several thousand of them to complain about a programme they clearly hadn’t heard or felt strongly enough about to criticise when it was originally broadcast.

I still feel the BBC needs a stronger editorial champion than it appears to have. Admittedly the BBC Trust doesn’t exist to champion BBC editorial independence but to bring it to book on behalf of the rest of us as licence fee payers and the government which approves the BBC’s funding via the universal tax, the licence fee.

Will anyone from the BBC management – director general Mark Thompson? – be brave enough to stand up for comedy in all its forms, even if it offends some people? It will take a great deal of diplomacy, given the vociferous multitudes who have made sure we all know just how “offended” they are (more than 42,000 according to the BBC Trust).

Defending the BBC will also take a great deal of bravery, now that the Brand/Ross/Sachs row is being used by the anti-BBC brigade to try to bring the BBC’s funding back into question. Radio 4’s Today programme dedicated their “top slot” to debating the future of the licence fee at 8.10am this morning. Chief among the BBC’s critics is Charles Moore, a former editor of the Telegraph. Funny how it’s always the same names attacking the BBC.


Pause for thought

I should just move on. I’ve suffered sudden bereavement before. But I can’t help wondering whether Jonathan Ross will return to BBC 1 and Radio 2 after his three-month suspension. Jeremy Vine and Terry Wogan have apparently cast doubt on the idea.

For what it’s worth, I reckon Ross and his agent Addison Cresswell will wait to see what the BBC internal inquiry reveals on November 20 before deciding whether to return or not and that will depend on how the BBC and boss Mark Thompson handle the thing at that point.

Thompson could still exonerate himself in this ridiculous affair by saying he had to pull Ross off air because of the scale of the reaction to the faux pas on the Russell Brand Show (35,000 complaints). If Thompson blamed the newspapers and online media for stoking the reaction, rather than blaming Ross and Brand for the original broadcast, and if Thompson holds Radio 2 managers responsible for letting the stuff be broadcast, he might just come out of this with a bit of editorial integrity left.

Also for what it’s worth, those journalists who helped gun down Ross last week might just be persuaded that Ross is a talented broadcaster, even if we all agree that after nine years on Radio 2 his show had become formulaic. (So is Terry Wogan’s but millions still tune into it.) But as a TV journalist for The Sun told me last week, journos were equally keen to have a go at Addison Cresswell who is, to all intents and purposes, a pretty tricky character to deal with. Which probably makes him a rather good agent. Can he bring Ross back from the brink of obscurity for a second time in the broadcaster’s career?


So here’s the thing (Warning: this post contains strong language)

 Brand and Ross BBC DG Mark Thompson

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.


Mark Thompson is utterly spineless

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.