Janet Street-Porter: Men like Russell Brand thrive in the macho culture of the airwaves
Published 29/10/2008 | 12:08
What was it precisely about Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross's telephone call to Andrew Sachs that annoyed so many people?
Thousands of people have voiced their displeasure on blogs and websites – the vast majority of them having surely never even heard the original broadcast on Radio 2.
When the PM programme on Radio 4 played a short burst of the offending incident, they were inundated with messages from enraged listeners incredulous that such offensive behaviour was pre-recorded and then transmitted. Is it about the language – the fact that the f-word was used? Or is it about a boorish trick – leaving impudent messages about sex on someone's answer phone? Or are we appalled because Andrew Sachs is a much-loved actor of a certain age?
Certainly, the subsequent apology broadcast by Russell Brand was risible, demonstrating that his producer is not up to the job. Inevitably, investigations have now been launched by the BBC and Ofcom, but will they prevent this kind of thing happening again? In my extensive experience, this incident isn't isolated, but indicative of a change in our culture.
I admit, I've used bad language regularly on television. When the BBC broadcast a fly-on-the-wall documentary about my stressful time running Live TV a decade ago, it contained more bleeps in an hour than any documentary previously aired on BBC2. But they were bleeps, and there weren't many complaints.
Now, when we reach the 9pm watershed, an announcer will almost invariably tell viewers (on all channels): "The following programme contains strong language". Indeed, the only programmes without a warning are probably about the life of polar bears or butterflies. Bleeping is largely a thing of the past, unless you're using the c-word.
Last year I presented The F Word on Channel 4 with Gordon Ramsay, another person who doesn't mince words. It was hugely popular with young people. They loved the combative element. At Las Vegas airport on Monday, scores of British teenagers came up to me to ask about my veal calves and what Gordon is really like. Even in Los Angeles, people watch the show on the Food channel and asked me about it in shops and restaurants.
Gordon is a huge star and people accept his direct language as part of his persona. Jamie Oliver's recent C4 series, where he tried to teach the underclass of Rotherham to cook, attracted criticism about his regular use of the f word. A lot of his older fans didn't like it at all. But I don't think the high level of anger over Ross and Brand is about language at all.
There is a real appetite in television and on the radio, to introduce confrontational situations – what the media business calls "jeopardy" – into factual and entertainment programmes. I am frequently asked to lose my rag and say what I really think – and the viewers like it.
I trust my producers and editors to err on the side of what is acceptable when they edit, and they do. Getting Ross and Brand to ring up Andrew Sachs was part of this trend to flirt with dangerous situations, but when Mr Sachs didn't pick up his phone, their unnecessarily crude comments should have been edited out straightaway.
Telly and radio has become increasingly bloke-ish, and the incident with Andrew Sachs is about that. A few years ago I took part in Nine out of 10 Cats with Jimmy Carr. I was the only woman on that show. During the recording my fellow panellists were more and more lewd (a lot would be edited out for broadcast and was only for the live audience's entertainment) and I felt increasingly uncomfortable.
When a gay man I knew was mentioned, my fellow panellist made a joke about anal sex, at which point I nearly burst into tears and asked to leave. Everyone was told to behave and the recording completed with me saying little. Incredibly, they asked me on the show again, but I declined.
Plenty of television shows reflect male camaraderie – from Never Mind the Buzzcocks to Not the Nine O'Clock News to Jonathan Ross's Friday night chat show, where testosterone levels soar. Most post-9pm entertainment is male dominated with a male agenda.
Female broadcasters don't sit around talking about sex like these guys get away with. Even on a cheeky show like Loose Women, there are definite boundaries. Recently it apologised for Joan Rivers's language. As a BBC executive I had a row with the writer Andrew Davies over a line in a post-9pm sitcom he'd written, in which a female character was referred to as "on the blob". Andrew really couldn't see what I found offensive.
Brand and Ross were reflecting this attitude. Senior executives should have junked the item, and insisted the apology was appropriate. Fines, sackings and investigations can't alter a culture.