The Ross/Brand incident and its aftermath

Yeah, I know, not exactly topical. But David Mitchell wrote a good article about it in the Guardian today and it seemed like a suitable moment to add my halfpennyworth.

It seems to me that the phone calls to Andrew Sachs were a special case. It bothered a lot of people who are not easily offended. I know that the outrage was orchestrated by the Daily Mail, but even so, I don’t think they would have been able to generate so many complaints if it hadn’t touched a nerve with a lot of people.

Leaving a message on someone’s answering machine making a joke about having slept with their granddaughter is just a dick thing to do. It would be a mean-spirited and distasteful thing to do even if you didn’t broadcast the message on national radio. It is in a sense as much bad manners as it is bad taste. And it was aimed directly at an individual who had done nothing to provoke or deserve it. If someone did it who wasn’t on the radio, just because they thought it was funny, it would be understood as harassment.

As you can tell, I think Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand crossed a line. I didn’t complain myself, but I can understand why people did, and an apology and some kind of disciplinary action was appropriate.

But that doesn’t mean that I support some kind of generalised campaign against bad taste at the BBC. An example: in the weeks after this happened, in the general climate of BBC self-flagellation, Frank Skinner made a little current affairs programme investigating the issue of bad language on television and particularly in comedy. To me, that’s a completely separate issue. I don’t care about bad language; sure, keep it off Blue Peter, but in an appropriate slot in the schedules I just don’t care. There is literally no amount of swearing you could fit into half an hour of television that I would find offensive. I might find it boring and unnecessary, but I am not going to be offended by it.

Or take the incontinent old women in Little Britain:

Now people might or might not find that kind of thing funny. They might well find it distasteful, in which case they can choose not watch it. They might even feel that there’s a serious social issue about the portrayal of the elderly, or the issue of incontinence, and that the show is actively harmful for that reason. But even if you find it offensive, it’s something which is performed by actors, which you have chosen to watch and which you can turn off. It is not the same as the BBC ringing your house and personally offending you, which is what they did to Andrew Sachs and the reason why so many people were angry.

It would be a tragedy for British popular culture if the BBC only ever made programmes which were completely inoffensive. The message I would want the BBC to take away from Sachsgate is not ‘don’t produce any material that might possibly offend people’. It’s ‘don’t call up individual members of the public and go out of your way to offend them personally’. Its the difference between a stand-up who makes fun of religion in a comedy club, and one who marches into a church on a Sunday morning and delivers the same material to the congregation halfway through the service.


  • 'the stream addresses of BBC National Radio stations, so that you can listen to the BBC on the move using an iPhone or iPod Touch.' Not sure this works for people outside the UK, but I'm really excited to find it. Now I can listen to the cricket on my phone… genius!
    ( tags: iPhone radio BBC )

Crappy journalism in action

I nearly posted a link to this story on the BBC website about cows having regional accents because I thought it was mildly interesting. But the internet linguistics police quickly debunked it.

The BBC story starts by saying “Cows have regional accents like humans, language specialists have suggested.” What actually happened was that a PR firm working for a cheese manufacturer had called a couple of linguists and asked them whether there was any possibility that cows’ moos varied geographically. The answer was something like “well, it seems very unlikely, but it’s not completely impossible, because regional ‘accents’ have been observed in birds”.

Now I don’t particularly blame the cheese people’s people. They’re a PR firm. Spinning the truth is what they do. Trading on other people’s professional authority while misrepresenting what they actually said isn’t exactly attractive behaviour, but they’re salespeople and they are open about the fact that they’re selling you something. And to be fair, the original press release clearly bases its claims only on what the farmers have said. It’s not claiming to be any more than anecdotal.

But I do blame the BBC. They are the ones who reported this as a news story on their science pages, and who failed to call the linguists in question for a bit of fact-checking. They’ve actually made it worse by cutting out all the references to the West Country Farmhouse Cheesemakers. That’s presumably because they aren’t supposed to be providing advertising for anyone, but the result is that they’ve cut out any indication that the story is based on a press release put out by the PR firm for a dairy company, rather than, oh I don’t know, a paper in a scientific journal.

You’re probably thinking “chill out, Harry, it’s only a silly story about cows having accents”. And that’s probably what the BBC would say in their defence. Well, fuck that. I know that the fate of nations doesn’t hang on it, but if something is reported as news, I want them to have made the basic minimum of effort to report it correctly. Otherwise, why bother?

It’s typical of the media’s approach to reporting science. Or indeed just about any subject outside politics. They get all up their own arses about the importance of their role as protectors of democracy and speakers of truth to power, and the seriousness and integrity of their political journalism. And on their better days, all that stuff is true. But the moment they report on science, there’s a feeling that well, no-one can be expected to understand the technical details, so it’s alright to provide a watered-down and simplistic version; and anyway, it’s not very important like the political stuff (as though most political journalism was any more than gossip), so as long as it’s mildly entertaining, who cares if it’s really accurate? And then because that’s their attitude, they get all surprised when people like me get annoyed by it, because it’s ‘just’ a silly season story about cows, and surely people are media-savvy enough to know that it may not be held to the same standards as their political reporting?

Well, no. I actually care about the truth of these stories. Even the cow story; if it’s true, it’s interesting. If it’s not true, it’s just a waste of my time. I really feel quite strongly that if they’re going to do science and health reporting, they should do it properly. At the most basic level: if they get a press release about a piece of scientific research, they should call the scientists involved and make sure they don’t misrepresent them. And if it appears to be making an outlandish or controversial claim, call someone who can be expected to know about the subject and check with them. Otherwise just stop it. Stop reporting about science altogether if you can’t be bothered to get it right.

And if you think they’re more reliable when the subject, instead of cow accents, is something vitally important like vaccinations causing autism: *hollow laugh*

Non-news story of the week

From the BBC: “A cloned human would probably consider themselves to be an individual, a study suggests.”

Well duh.

Duchamp vandalism and BBC fuckwittery

Someone took a hammer to Fountain by Marcel Duchamp. Which is the famous sculpture made from a urinal. I just found the BBC’s phrasing annoying:

A 77-year-old Frenchman has spent a night in custody in Paris after attacking a plain porcelain urinal considered to be a major artwork.

‘considered’ to be a major artwork? It’s one of the iconic artworks of the 20th century! I can’t believe that 88 years after the event, the BBC still feels the need to prevaricate about it. Not the Daily Mail or the Sun, but the BBC, a serious news organisation and a major cultural broadcaster to boot. Fuckwits. What kind of philistinic culture do we live in?

I don’t insist people should like Fountain, and if you wanted, you could argue it’s a kind of work which has been a rather uninteresting experiment and should be relegated to a footnote in art history. Or whatever. But the idea that we have to have the same stupid, boring, pointless argument about whether it’s art, over and over again – aargh!