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.