Manuel's revenge: Future of Radio 2 controller hangs in balance

By Ian Burrell,Media Editor
Thursday 30 October 2008 01:00

The future of the most senior woman in British radio was in doubt last night after the comedian Russell Brand resigned from his Radio 2 job as the furore over his phone prank with fellow presenter Jonathan Ross engulfed the BBC. Lesley Douglas, who is the BBC's controller of popular music, as well as being in charge of both Radio 2 and the digital station 6 Music, is said to be prepared to quit if members of her production staff are sacked over the scandal.

That scenario was looking increasingly possible last night as political and public condemnation of the actions of the presenters continued to grow and the director general of the BBC, Mark Thompson, prepared to return from holiday to a corporation that looked rudderless. Jack Straw, the Lord Chancellor, entered the row last night by condemning the BBC's "appalling lapse in standards" and saying Ross and Brand should have been promptly fired.

"If the presenters concerned had been working for a local radio station... and they'd done this, does anyone seriously believe that they'd still be in post? Of course not. They'd have been given their P45 before you could say Jack Robinson. And it's difficult not to feel that that's exactly what should happen to these two so-called 'stars'."

As Brand later tended his resignation and apologised to colleagues on his show for having "damaged their careers", Ross issued a public apology through his lawyers, saying he had made a "stupid error of judgment" and was "deeply sorry" for his "juvenile and thoughtless remarks".

The actor Andrew Sachs, victim of the prank, in which obscene messages were left on his answering machine in a pre-recorded sequence broadcast on Brand's show on 18 October, came out of his home to say he accepted the presenters' apologies but to also state that he had been told by the show's producer, Nic Philps, that he would be able to record an interview and the messages would not be broadcast. "I said, 'That's a good idea, then you can cut anything you've done and we can have a proper interview,'" said Mr Sachs.

Mr Philps is understood to have assured the BBC, which is conducting an internal investigation, that he understood that Sachs was happy for the messages – which concerned the actor's granddaughter – to be broadcast, provided they were "toned down".

The affair calls into question procedures introduced by the BBC in the wake of a string of scandals that have damaged the corporation's reputation in the past 18 months, with viewers deceived by Blue Peter, Comic Relief and Children In Need. A false presentation of film of the Queen led to the resignation of BBC1 controller Peter Fincham.

It is understood Mr Philps filled out a BBC compliance document, intended to ensure the programme met BBC standards, and passed it to Dave Barber, compliance officer for Radio 2, who cleared the show for broadcast.

Ms Douglas, 45, who has transformed Radio 2 into a youthful network with an audience of 13 million, had no prior knowledge of the show's content and did not sign it off. But having seen colleague Ric Blaxill lose his post last year over the phone-in scandals, she may find it hard to remain in her post if other members of her staff are sacked.

Mr Thompson has been on holiday in Sicily while the scandal has grown to a point where Gordon Brown and David Cameron have felt the need to criticise Ross and Brand. Earlier yesterday afternoon he took the decision to suspend both presenters, pending the outcome of the inquiry. Ross's BBC1 chat show, Friday Night with Jonathan Ross, was pulled from the schedules. BBC2, meanwhile, replaced an episode of the game show Never Mind The Buzzcocks because it featured Brand.

Mr Thompson accused Brand and Ross, the latter the BBC's highest-paid presenter, of "a gross lapse of taste". He said: "I would like to add my personal and unreserved apology to Andrew Sachs, his family and to licence fee payers for the completely unacceptable broadcast on BBC 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 views expressed by the public that this broadcast has caused severe offence. I share that view."

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