Stephen Glover: A new battle between generations threatens to undermine the BBC’s values

Last week’s row concerning Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand could be described as a culture war between those who respect traditional standards of decency, and those who don’t. It could be more precisely represented as a culture war in which the over 45s and the under 30s are pitted against one another.

My own straw poll suggests that very few middle-aged people, let alone older ones, see the point of Ross and Brand, and their type of puerile, vulgar humour. By contrast, quite a lot of young people cannot understand what the fuss is all about.

It is interesting that it was the Press which gave this story lift-off. The average age of a newspaper reader is around 50, ranging from 57 at the Daily Telegraph to the lowish 40s at the Daily Star. The spirited efforts of newspapers to lure young readers have long been met with only limited success, and in the internet age are surely doomed to failure.

The BBC has similar problems. The average age of a Radio 4 listener, for example, is 54. Nevertheless, the Corporation has exerted itself to attract younger viewers and listeners. That is why Russell Brand was given a slot on Radio 2, a station many of us associate with Housewives Choice and Family Favourites. It explains why the BBC pays Ross an amazing – and I would say indefensible – £6m a year, though his programmes attract relatively modest audiences. Shielded as it is from commercial realities, the Corporation has been able to devote more time and money to chasing after a “yoof” audience than have newspapers, though it has barely lowered the “age profile” of its punters.

So the story unfolded with the Mail on Sunday and the Daily Mail (the average reader age of both newspapers is significantly above 50) respectively revealing how Ross and Brand had left crude, bullying messages on Andrew Sachs’s answering machine and calling for them to be sacked. But it would be wrong to see this as a story driven only by Mail titles. Before long the entire Press had jumped in, by and large taking the Daily Mail line. The Guardian stood aside the longest, as ever averse to following a hare set off by the Mail, and grumbling in its usual superior way about a media storm in a teacup. Before long, though, it was loping after the pack.

Newspapers were reflecting the concern, outrage or disbelief of their largely middle-aged readers. Even left-wing columnists, most of whom are over 40, tended to attack Ross and Brand, and it was very difficult to find anyone who had a good word to say for them. By contrast, the BBC, and in particular its management, was obtuse in grasping why such offence had been caused.

It turned out that the producer who had approved the show (and disregarded the objections of Mr Sachs) was aged only 25. Of course, the BBC’s senior management, so slow to grasp the seriousness of what had

happened, is constituted of middle-aged people, but whereas newspapers sensed the disquiet of their readers, the BBC was not alive to the concerns of many of its licence payers. Protected as it is by a wall of licence payers’ money, the Corporation showed how out of touch it has become. Worshipping at the altar of “yoof culture”, it forgot that much of its audience, Radio 1 aside, is made up of middle-aged people.

Note how the jibes of Ross and Brand against the 78-year-old Andrew Sachs had an ageist character. The two men pandered to what they hope is a contempt, even distaste, for the old on the part of the young. An equally bad (worse?) example was provided by the Scottish so-called comedian Frankie Boyle on BBC2’s Mock the Week last Wednesday. In imitation of the Queen delivering her Christmas broadcast, he said: “I have had few medical issues this year – I’m so old that my pussy is haunted.” This is cruel, ageist, misogynist, and very possibly treasonable.

The BBC employs a small army of “comics”, usually male and middle-aged, who specialize in vulgar and scatological humour calculated to appeal to the young. Setting aside the now suspended Ross, and Brand who resigned before he was pushed, there is Radio 1’s Chris Moyles, the Mock the Week crew, countless unremembered names on BBC3 and, of course, Graham Norton. Last week, in an impromptu sketch on his show, he imagined Sarah Palin “lifting her skirt and rubbing herself” and then “licking her lips and grabbing the penis” of her business partner. I suppose there may be some poor saps who maintain this is “edgy” but I suspect that most of us think it is coarse and unfunny, however absurd we may believe Sarah Palin to be.

Some may say the young have rights too, and as a publicly funded broadcaster the BBC should cater for them. Not if that entails offending the majority who pay the licence fee. In any case, don’t the young deserve to be inspired rather than dragged through the gutter? Nor is it a respectable defence to say that some of these are “niche” programmes to which boring middle-aged people need not listen if they don’t want to. There are bound to be varying tastes, and no one is asking for uniformity, but the BBC should observe basic standards of decency throughout its coverage. We do not expect it to be racist. Why should we pay for unadulterated crudeness, much of which is particularly offensive to women?

I am not sure that Mark Thompson, the director-general, or Sir Michael Lyons, chairman of the BBC Trust, have yet fully grasped the point. Sir Michael gave a particularly half-witted performance on Radio 4’s Today Programme last Friday, implying that the Ross-Brand episode was an aberration, whereas it is in fact part of a general scourge. One might even say that the vehemence of public reaction was disproportionate to the original offence. If so, that only emphasises the extent of pent up public frustration with the BBC.

Don’t forget your core audience and the people who pay your bills: that is the main lesson of this affair. If Mr Thompson and Sir Michael have grasped that point, and the BBC reconnects with the majority of its licence payers, the Corporation may still have a long and happy future in something like its present form. But if business is resumed as though nothing much has happened, the BBC will continue to lose support. In a decade or so, under the eye of a possibly less sympathetic government, it may well find itself shorn of its more commercially driven activities, supplying only more elevated news and arts coverage that are not produced by other broadcasters. And that, I increasingly believe, would not be at all a bad thing.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
News
Campbell: ‘Sometimes you have to be economical with the truth’
newsFormer spin doctor says MPs should study tactics of leading sports figures like José Mourinho
Sport
football
Life and Style
Agretti is often compared to its relative, samphire, though is closer in taste to spinach
food + drink
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Kelly Osbourne will play a flight attendant in Sharknado 2
people
News
Down-to-earth: Winstone isn't one for considering his 'legacy'
people
News
The dress can be seen in different colours
i100
Sport
Wes Brown is sent-off
football
Voices
Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey VC
voicesBeware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Alexander McQueen's AW 2009/10 collection during Paris Fashion Week
fashionMeet the collaborators who helped create the late designer’s notorious spectacles
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Junior Business Systems Analyst - High Wycombe - £30,000

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Junior Business Systems Analyst role...

Guru Careers: Talent Manager

£30-35k (P/T - Pro Rata) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienc...

Sauce Recruitment: New Media Marketing Manager - EMEA - Digital Distribution

£35000 - £45000 per annum + up to £45,000: Sauce Recruitment: The Internation...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing / PR / Social Media Executive

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A thriving online media busines...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?