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.