Prurience and privatisation
What lies behind the furore over the Russell Brand radio show? James Turley examines the issues
The American populace was about to go to the polls; the financial crisis was grinding ever onwards; the bodies continued to pile up in the Middle East.
The British media, then, did the honourable thing and turned over acres of newsprint to the pressing issue of Russell Brand (a Goth version of ‘zany’ Colin from The fast show) and Jonathan Ross (a moderately funny man on an immoderate salary) leaving crude answerphone messages for Andrew Sachs (best known as hapless waiter Manuel in the inexplicably popular Fawlty Towers).
As no doubt readers will know, the unlucky actor had been due to appear as a phone-in guest on Brand’s late-night radio show, on Saturday October 18. When the show was recorded, and Brand and his studio guest, Ross, attempted to telephone Sachs, they were able only to reach his voicemail. So they proceeded to leave a series of lewd messages, focusing on Brand’s brief fling with Sachs’ granddaughter, Georgina Baillie (not wanting to leave any room for doubt, Ross at one point just shouted, “He fucked your granddaughter!”).
The show had an estimated audience of 400,000 people, but only two complained - which is less than for an average episode of Top of the pops. Sachs himself remained apparently unperturbed until the following Wednesday, at which point began the involvement of the main agent in this furore, the Mail on Sunday.
A journalist from that paper contacted Sachs’ agent, Meg Pool, asking for comment - she and Sachs listened to the broadcast, at which point he was allegedly “offended very much indeed”. When Sunday October 26 came around, the inevitable frothing Mail story appeared - and the strange but now drearily familiar phenomenon of retrospective outrage flowered in earnest. The number of complaints received by Ofcom and the BBC skyrocketed to around 40,000. Only Jerry Springer: the opera beats it in recent history, with 55,000. Gordon Brown even called the programme “inappropriate”, and David Cameron wasted no time in sticking his oar in either.
Since then, heads have rolled: Brand and Ross each issued their own apologies, and were both suspended without pay by the Beeb. Brand resigned, followed by the controller of Radio 2, Lesley Douglas. While Sachs magnanimously accepted the apology (and may, on the whole, have been more irked to find that he is still only known to the public as Manuel), Baillie - a burlesque dancer under the stage name Voluptua, in a troupe called Satanic Sluts Extreme - reacted furiously, immediately hiring Max Clifford and threatening to take the matter to the police, leading to the amusing spectacle of photographs of a tied-up stripper appearing on the Mail’s website. Anything to nail the ‘Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation’ ...
‘Ban this sick filth!’
This affair fits into two very longstanding patterns - the tendency among rightwing papers, with the Mail at their vanguard, to try to spark hysterical moral outrage; and their tendency to attack the BBC in particular.
Readers will likely recall the furore over Jerry Springer and also Brass eye’s 2001 special, ‘Paedogeddon’. Jerry Springer was, to be fair, opposed largely by an organised caucus of rightwing Christians (although the Tory press knew which side its bread was buttered).
‘Paedogeddon’, however, was attacked ferociously by the Mail (no broadsheet followed it this time). At that time too, parliament attempted to jump the bandwagon - David Blunkett, then home secretary, loudly criticised the programme … before admitting he had not watched it. Tessa Jowell demanded the Independent Television Commission change its rules so it could prevent future ‘Paedogeddons’ from being broadcast ... before admitting that she had not watched it either.
And it was not without good reason that the Mail and inept reactionaries were so furious - only rarely do the bourgeois media produce so devastating a satire as that programme, which was laser-targeted at the distinctively neurotic hypocrisy propagated by the Mail (one of its contemporary ‘Ban this sick filth!’ articles ran alongside a close-up of princesses Beatrice and Eugenie - then 13 and 11 respectively). ‘Paedogeddon’ did more in half an hour of merciless humour to puncture the almost Freudian censoriousness of ‘family values’ Toryism than a decade of worthy Guardian editorials.
The same cannot be said for Brand, Ross and their little number, of course - as comedians, both are at the best of times over-reliant on asinine knob gags (Ross famously asked David Cameron if he had ever masturbated while thinking about Margaret Thatcher), and it is difficult to see what it was about their fateful pratting around with Andrew Sachs’ voicemail that was worthy of broadcast. Still, a great proportion of radio jokes fall flat, and that is not a crime. Conversely, there is nothing about knob gags that dooms them all to eye-rolling dullness.
The Mail’s campaign is, in this regard, by no means specific to itself, and comparable to the well-known crackdown by the American Federal Complaints Commission (FCC) on televised sex in 2004. That rather puritanical campaign was triggered by Janet Jackson slipping momentarily out of her top during a half-time performance at the Superbowl, and was fuelled by a Christian right on full mobilisation for the coming presidential election.
Both the Mail and the all but openly political FCC (as opposed to the faux neutrality of, say, Ofcom) proclaim themselves partisans of ‘decency’ against the endless deluge of degraded filth that modern society throws at us. But this crusade is not self-sufficient - on the contrary, it sustains, and is sustained by, a more general ideological assemblage of interventions into real political struggles. For the Mail, cleaning up Russell Brand is of a piece with its opposition to gay rights, feminism and everything else, and ultimately for the full regulation of sexual relations and discourse by the state and ideological state apparatuses - an aim conducive to bourgeois rule both in acting as a safety valve for dissent and inasmuch as its achievement demobilises the working class.
This is one reason why some leftwing responses are so dispiriting. For Mick Hall, a widely read left blogger, the main problem is apparently the lack of ‘gallantry’: “What [Ross] and Brand had to say about Sacs [sic] granddaughter was not funny, sharp or clever; it was spiteful, crude, sexist, infantile, nasty and about as ungallant as any man could be.”1 He goes on to call for the heads of the two comics and the director general and chairman of the BBC. Hall and others share a distaste for the spectacular salaries of these ‘star performers’ - Ross in particular signed a three-year contract for £18 million, although this goes to his production company rather than to him as an individual.
A superficially different view (not least because it is more sophisticated) has emerged from the irascible Marxisants of the former Revolutionary Communist Party. Their Spiked website has run two articles on the subject. The first focuses mainly on the idea that the ‘cultural elite’ have become completely alienated from the masses. Thus, when they need ‘edgy’ comedy with broad appeal, they end up turning to the likes of Brand, who duly come up with the necessary. It also claims that the Mail’s summoning of scandal out of the ether is basically an internecine battle between different bits of the media - or, more colourfully, “media masturbation”.2
The second author disagrees with the last point: instead, he claims that the 40,000 complainants are, far from simply being ‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’ types hoodwinked by the media circus, just tired of being underestimated - the true meaning of this public reaction is simply, ‘I object to being treated like a four-year-old’.3
It is an appealing thought - but for the fact that it is obviously not true. The people making the complaints precisely are the archetypal Daily Mail reader - petty bourgeois, hard-line Tory little-Englanders. The BBC reports that the responses they have received differ drastically according to what channel or station picks them up - Radio 4 listeners are broadly outraged, whereas Radio 1 listeners tend to think the whole thing’s been absurdly overblown. One listener is cited in amazement at Gordon Brown’s comments - “The financial markets are wrecked and all he can do is talk about a petty joke.”4 Quite.
For both Spiked and Mick Hall, then, the main villain is the BBC. Which brings us to the second pattern of the Mail’s reporting - hostility to this institution. A Radio 4 controller once remarked that he had two audiences - Guardianista liberals, and Daily Mail readers - who both felt to the core of their being that the station was theirs. And the peculiar position of the BBC in relation to the state and the broader ideological apparatuses in British society is one that reproduces this division both throughout its audience and in its political position at large.
The Beeb is a state broadcaster which is kept, through various bureaucratic means, at arms length from direct state control. It has restricted but real financial independence, both from the state and the profit motive. As such, it has been somewhat vulnerable to the occasional break with the official establishment line - particularly at times when the bourgeoisie is split on an issue. Thus, it did give a certain limited prominence to the anti-Iraq war movement in its early days, and even fought openly with the government after the death of David Kelly - a battle it brutally lost. This dissidence should not be overstated, of course - by and large, the BBC is compliant in its factual programming. But the freedom from profitability has in turn sometimes allowed more subversive writers a chance to make TV shows and radio plays.
In its early days, under son of the manse John Reith, the BBC was scrupulously clean. But this could not last, as competition from ITV and then the immense popularity of pirate radio stations in the 1960s forced it to take on more and more roles outside of its didactic ‘public service’ remit. The relative unencumbrance of the BBC from its former high-handed moralism is a necessary consequence of its having to run a radio station like Radio 1, or a TV channel like BBC3.
If, nowadays, the corporation formerly known as ‘Auntie’ is the sort of benign relative who might slip the kids sweets before dinner, the Mail would rather it be in line with the humourless tyrannical spinsters who populate Saki short stories. But there are other agendas at work here: consider the Murdoch press, for instance. It is the most widespread manifestation of a media conglomerate in direct competition with the BBC. In particular, they have an interest in its privatisation - who knows what juicy bits they may pick up on the cheap?
In fact, numerous plans for the privatisation or part-privatisation of the BBC have been floated over the years, particularly in 2006 when its charter came up for renewal. A particularly popular one would see large chunks of the licence fee hived off to other companies that took on ‘public service’ roles. In reality, this would force the BBC to downsize considerably, leaving it something like the Daily Mail dream - an austere public service broadcaster - if perhaps retaining its capacity for mild dissidence, like America’s PBS stations. Certainly, £18 million contracts would be out.
By letting themselves get caught up in this kind of Beeb-bashing, Mick Hall and Spiked end up providing left cover both for moralistic hysteria over ‘decency’ and for moves towards the BBC’s privatisation. We should oppose both - the first because that reactionary dross is antithetical to our class in a way that an ill-judged answerphone message simply is not; the second because surrendering what little independence the BBC has from the market would be to surrender a timid but sometimes valuable source of division in the bourgeois media.
Instead, communists should argue that every element of this saga underlines how isolated the working class and broad masses are from real power in society. This battle between two factions in the bourgeois media - however real the stakes - can only be conclusively resolved with its usurpation by the proletariat. It reminds us that the idiocy and degeneracy of cultural products in late capitalism is a problem that the ruling class can only oppose with still more idiotic reactionary ideology; and that cultural production poses the revolution unique and pressing challenges, particularly in building hegemony for communist ideas.