Deborah Orr: Can we agree on this: you don't discuss other people's sex lives

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The Independent Online

No BBC executive has had the courage to point out one obvious fact about this week's furore over the lewd on-air behaviour of Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand. The obvious fact is that no other institution galvanises public debate about cultural issues in quite the way that the corporation does.

Unfortunately, however, that strength is also a weakness. The BBC is not in a position to claim that it has provided a "public service" in its generous manufacture of a single incident that encapsulates so much that so many people feel is wrong and degraded about the way certain individuals relate to others. Always, the spotlight is on what such controversies say about the BBC, rather than what they say about wider mores.

Although a number of people have spoken in partial defence of Brand and Ross, I am not aware of anyone who claims that what Britain needs is a more relaxed attitude towards the telephoning of 78-year-old men and the regaling of them with intimate sexual details about their young relatives. Even so, despite the complaints, the BBC is keen to point out that there is "a generation gap" in reactions to the broadcast and its relatively slow-burn aftermath.

Yet even Ross, 47, and Brand, 33, displayed a dim awareness that they were way out of line at the time they were conducting the "prank". "What's that noise I hear?" Ross asked sarcastically at the end of the exchange. "It's the sound of a Sony Award heading your way." The two men were well aware that they were not engaged in the production of comic genius (although the just-quoted remark is actually reasonable amusing).

However, even though they were concerned enough to contact Georgina Baillie, the granddaughter of Andrew Sachs, and ask her to help them in smoothing over their gaffe, most of the material was still broadcast, against the wishes of Sachs. It has been suggested that the show's 25-year-old producer, Nic Philps, was too inexperienced to override the commands of the two highly paid stars. The rather more pathetic truth, surely, is that the men were so convinced of their own macho invulnerability that they were able to dismiss even their own misgivings.

Ross comes out of this debacle more poorly than Brand, not only because he didn't have the good sense to resign, but also because he is a person who believes strongly that there should be a division between the public and the private. His persona as a performer may be crude. But insomuch as he encourages intrusion into his private life at all, he always chooses to emphasise that he is an uxorious husband and a committed family man. This "family man" cannot for a moment, however, have thought about how he himself might have felt had a broadcaster rung him up and told Ross about how "he fucked your granddaughter", as Ross himself put it. (It was Ross who made the first explicit reference to Baillie, not Brand.) Nor could any of the other people involved in deciding to air this material, which is why there has been so much focus on the "chain of command" at the BBC. In truth, there was no "chain of command" as Brand's show was the independent production of his own company, the aptly titled Vanity Projects.

Anyway, neither Vanity Projects nor the BBC is by any means the only media organisation that eschews the "do as you would be done by" test when deciding on who might be the valid butt of "entertainment". There has been a great deal of discussion of "cruel comedy". But much "lighter" media comment is cruel for the sake of it, aiming to ridicule individuals without employing humour, or attempting what is ever more loosely described as "satire", at all.

There has been a lot of talk about "knowing where to draw the line". What is most worrying is that even though so many people have "had their say", little consensus has emerged over what that line may be. Partly that is simply because "taste" and "humour" are hard to define. For some people, the fact that Brand's radio show features bad language puts it beyond the pale. For others, the despicable thing is that Sachs is "an old man" (although this "old man" comes across as fabulously calm and dignified, and far better equipped to deal with life's vicissitudes than the younger men who caused the problem). For yet more, the big deal appears to be that such stunts are "funded by the licence payer" (while actual pornography is delivered free as part of one's Virgin media "package").

But the strange thing is that it is easy to observe what line has been crossed. People simply shouldn't talk publicly about the sex lives of others, because it is a gross invasion of their privacy and a refutation of human trust and intimacy. If Ross and Brand had been sensitive enough to understand this, or even if their handlers had been, there would have been no problem. The press – usually vociferous in defending the right to "kiss and tell" – has worked hard to ensure that the vulgar betrayal committed by Ross and Brand reaches the widest possible audience.

If there really is a "generation gap" between people who understand that only emotional inadequates broadcast details about their sexual partners and people who don't, then it is not the BBC that has done the most to promote this idea. But it would be nice if the corporation could start showing some understanding that this is precisely where its wilful little charges went wrong in the first place.

Georgina Baillie, pictured, the 23-year-old woman whose sexual past was plundered with such graphic vulgarity, may style herself, along with the other members of her dance troupe, as a Satanic Slut. But even though she is young enough to reside on the more liberal shore of the "generation gap", she appeared in no doubt that it was wrong of Brand and Ross to talk about her in the way they did, to her grandfather or to anyone else. She's let herself down a little, perhaps, in seeking revenge by paying Brand out in kind. But are the newspapers that encouraged her to reveal details about Brand's own sexual prowess even aware that this stunt was not so very much different from the one they were so tremendously outraged by?

Carry on shopping – regardless of your financial situation

London Citizen is a campaigning group that argues for a living wage rather than a minimum wage to be adopted in areas where the cost of living is high. Its proposition has been endorsed by Boris Johnson, who understands that the cost of living is higher nowhere than it is in the city of which he is Mayor. The Government is also enthusiastic about the idea, and says that a minimum rate of £7.45 would greatly help in its campaign against child poverty.

However, the Department for Children, Schools and Families has rejected the notion as far as its own contracted staff are concerned. The move, say the wise heads, would be inflationary. Far better, I'm sure they agree, that the poor should instead sign up en masse for the pre-pay cards that many retailers are now offering, in conjunction with Provident Financial Services, which allow people with poor credit ratings to buy consumer items on the never-never.

Then they can pay back the money to a collector who comes to their door every week, at an interest rate of 225 per cent. That's good for the flagging retail trade, good for the beleaguered financial services industry, and, of course, good for the Government's pesky wage bills.

In fact, if it wasn't so morally repugnant in every way, it would be a perfect scheme. We can only hope that it will fuel the hoped-for success of Westfield, the new shopping centre in London's Shepherd's Bush that is so clearly the most significant edifice to have been erected in Britain since Stonehenge. I know my fingers are crossed.

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