How a silly prank became a scandal

It started with two radio presenters messing around late at night, and ended with a crisis for the BBC that revealed its failure to police itself. By Ian Burrell

Thursday 30 October 2008 01:00

So, at the first time of asking, the new system installed by the BBC in a great public show of conscientiousness to win back our trust has comprehensively failed.

We have now had two years of almost unrelenting BBC scandal – from misrepresenting the Queen, to rigging a competition to name the Blue Peter cats, to the phone-in deceit over such sacred cows as Children in Need and Comic Relief.

Careers are on the line: this latest saga may yet claim the scalp of the controller of Radio 2, Lesley Douglas, who is a hugely influential figure.

Four days ago, no one imagined that a 78-year-old former actor, remembered for his portrayal of a hapless Catalan waiter, could blow such shivering winds through the corporation. Just 15 months ago, the BBC Trust itself voiced "deep concern" about "significant failures of control and compliance". The governors demanded that executives clean up their employees' conduct.

Yet the new rules have been shown to be woefully inadequate during the Andrew Sachs affair – a soap opera beyond the imagination of the Beeb's best writers, which began 12 days ago when Russell Brand and his Radio 2 co-presenter, Jonathan Ross, left obscene messages on Sachs's answering machine. Ross said Brand had slept with his granddaughter; Brand subsequently called back and left another message, a song joking that the older man might now kill himself.

That this was pre-recorded and not live – and that it was subsequently allowed by Radio 2 executives to be broadcast – is the shrieking banshee in the corner of Broadcasting House.

Under the BBC's supposedly stringent new rules, Nic Philps, the 25-year-old producer of The Russell Brand Show, had to follow certain procedures. He has since told colleagues that he called Sachs to discuss the messages, and, as a result, felt that he could broadcast them, provided the material was "toned down". Judging by Sachs's comments yesterday, he disagrees totally, believing he had expressed his concerns and had agreed to do a replacement interview at a later date.

Even so, the programme need never have been broadcast. Mr Philps was required to fill out a detailed compliance form, an exercise involving laborious ticking of boxes, each intended to root out scandal. He gave the form to Radio 2's compliance officer, Dave Barber, who has the job of analysing content. The programme was aired.

Just why this happened will be picked clean by two inquiries; one led by the BBC's head of radio, Tim Davie, and another by the broadcasting watchdog, Ofcom. Was the show approved because, after Queengate and the phone-in scandals, there was an obsession with authenticity, above and beyond matters of decency and taste? Did a compliance officer really feel empowered to stand up to the highest-paid presenter in the BBC (Ross) or to a maverick comedian who has been given freedom to outrage? Did Mr Barber feel he could send the pair back to the editing suite?

In the eyes of some people at Radio 2, Ross is more powerful than anyone else on the station. Said one source there: "Radio 2 is talent driven and Jonathan Ross is symbolic of its turnaround in fortunes."

Mark Thompson, the BBC director general, suspended Ross and Brand yesterday, meaning they will not be broadcast or paid. Brand's subsequent resignation only turned the spotlight on to Ross and Douglas. Politicians have been demanding heads, with Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, saying yesterday the BBC had allowed an "appalling lapse in standards".

If members of the Radio 2 staff go, then Ms Douglas would quit too, insiders say. That could be a major blow for BBC radio, as Ms Douglas has been credited with transforming the station she joined more than 20 years ago as a production assistant.

Though Ross has been at the station since 1999, Ms Douglas has moved Radio 2 away from the world of easy listening and brought in younger presenters such as Brand, Dermot O'Leary, Jeremy Vine, Chris Evans, Steve Lamacq and Mark Lamarr.

With an audience of more than 13 million, Radio 2 takes 16 per cent of the total audience, and the commercial sector complains frequently that it cannot compete. Ms Douglas would point out that many of her presenters were not being offered other radio work when she gave them a job. She has been repeatedly promoted and has the new title of controller, popular music, as well as responsibility for a digital station called 6 Music.

Such is her influence that, at industry events, the chief executives of the biggest record companies have been known to cross the room to speak to her. Just into his prestigious new job astride the BBC's radio network, Mr Davie will be fearful of losing his most successful controller.

Yet Ms Douglas has a dilemma. Last year's scandals also involved 6 Music, and when a competition was found to have been rigged, the controller, Ric Blaxill, resigned. Having watched her juniors carry the can, Ms Douglas is uncomfortable with the prospect of repeating that process.

As for Brand and Ross, it is the latter who has most to lose. Seduced by the heady, renegade atmosphere of Brand's show into a major lapse of judgement, "Wossy" faces calls for his head. But, with 18 months left on an £18m three-year deal, he is confident the scandal will blow over and he will keep his job, particularly after his apology. In any case, when his agent negotiated his BBC deal, Ross was reportedly courted by Channel 4 and ITV, though neither broadcaster is awash with cash right now.

Brand can move on. The former drug addict built his name by causing uproar – most infamously by turning up to work on 12 September 2001 dressed as Osama bin Laden. Sales for his stand-up routine are rising and, with several film projects in the offing, this affair will not crush him. Far from it. The real losers are the Sachs family and, once again, the reputation of the BBC.

In their own words: What the key players said yesterday

Andrew Sachs

Reporter: [Your granddaughter] said today that she'd had a relationship with Russell [Brand] in the past. How do you feel about that?

Andrew Sachs: Well, she's a grown-up woman, that's her choice. What grandfather tells his granddaughter how to... you might give advice but do kids listen? Not really, unless it's something they would agree with. Do I have to go on?

R: Have you decided whether or not you'd like to take the matter up with the police?

AS: I have decided – I didn't need to decide, I'm not going to take it anywhere. I'm not out for revenge or anything like that. These are two performers... I'm a performer, and sometimes it goes very wrong, and it's up to them to do better. That's enough, isn't it?

R: Have you had a chance to speak to the producer?

AS: No.

R: And he hasn't offered you anapology yet.

AS: No – I'm not collecting apologies, I don't care whether he does or not.

R: Had the producer agreed with you that the initial interview would not be aired on the show?

AS: I was in the street, listening to some of the recorded stuff on my mobile. There was a lot of traffic around and I could hardly hear. He called me and said: "Are you all right for what was said?" I said: "Not really"'. He said: "Would you like to do the whole thing again next week?" and I said: "That's a good idea, you can cut everything you've done, and we'll have a proper interview." That's the last I heard of him.

R: So you never authorised what was broadcast?

AS: No, no.

R: Do you think the BBC should be broadcasting such things?

AS: Well, if I were the BBC I wouldn't do that. I hope I wouldn't.

R: If your granddaughter hasn't had an apology yet, do you think they should still go on and apologise to her?

AS: Yeah, absolutely. And my daughter, and my wife. Everybody goes for the extreme nowadays, the middle road is difficult to tread. You want to drive in a faster car or climb a higher mountain, or use swear words to excess... everything's extreme, and nobody seems to restrict themselves.

Russell Brand

I have apologised to Andrew Sachs for the rude messages I left on 18 October and he has graciously accepted. As I only do the radio show to make people laugh, I've decided tha,t given the subsequent coverage, I will stop doing the show.

I've loved working for the BBC and am very proud of the shows myself, Matt Morgan, Nic Philps, Mr Gee and Noel Gallagher have made and Iapologise to all of them for damaging their careers – except Noel, whose band are doing quite well.

I got a bit caught up in themoment and forgot that at the core of the rude comments and silly songs were the real feelings of a beloved and brilliant comicactor and a very sweet and big-hearted young woman. I take complete responsibility.

Mark Thompson

I would like to add my own personal and unreserved apology to Andrew Sachs, his family and tolicence-fee payers for the completely unacceptable broadcast on Radio 2. BBC audiences accept that, in comedy, performers attempt to push the line of taste. However, this is not a marginal case. It is clear from the views expressed by the public that this broadcast has caused severe offence and I share that view.

The investigation I instructed Tim Davie to conduct is nearing completion, and I am returning to London to review the findings and... announce what action we will take. In the meantime, I have decided that it is not appropriate for either Russell Brand or Jonathan Ross to continue broadcasting on the BBC until I have seen the full report of the actions of all concerned.

Jonathan Ross

It was a stupid error ofjudgment on my part,and I offer a full apology. I am deeply sorry and greatly regret the upset and distress that my juvenile and thoughtlessremarks on the Russell Brand show have caused.

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