Let’s be clear: I didn’t laugh at the joke. But I also didn’t laugh when Jonathan Ross was suspended; when the BBC Trust decided it was at the beck and call of the Daily Mail and waded in to lay down the law; and by the time Leslie Douglas resigned I was into negative laughs: I was making other people miserable to deny the world of their laughter also.
This entire incident has reached levels of craziness that would never have happened were we not in the middle of a series of important ongoing stories that have become boring before they end. Without something new, the media jumped on a story, any story, that was different. If only the election had happened a week earlier; if only the financial system had collapsed slightly quicker and we’d been getting on with our lives by now; if only there’d been a major humanitarian disaster to divert our attention from two people paid by the BBC to be professional children.
Sure, some of the media, rather than jumping on the bandwagon of hate, calling for resignations and firing and the pulling down of the BBC while desperately digging through the archives for topless photos of Georgina Baillie, instead made their new front page story all about how everyone else was doing this. No matter: it’s still a media storm even if you’re merely talking about people talking about something.
But really this isn’t about the media. It’s about how the BBC is governed. And what we’ve had confirmed is that in the 21st Century the BBC is allowed to run according to its internal procedures – including investigating when they might have been broken – right up until the point where a newspaper with a large enough readership decide that they’re upset.
The current complaints tally is around 37000, some 0.6% of the population of the country, or one in 1600 or so. A few thousand complaints always sounds like a lot, but it’s really not. While not quite in the position of the famous Brass Eye Paedophilia Special, where 2000 complaints had to be weighed against 3000 calls of support, a Facebook supporting Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross has racked up over 29000 members (via The Guardian), and it is likely that more of those supporting actually listened to the show in the first place than those in opposition. Add in that it’s much rarer for people to officially register support of something contentious than to complain about it, and it’s clear that although passions are riding high on this issue, it’s complex enough that it should have been resolved calmly, rather than with pitchforks and torches.
Decency is not democratic: what you think is funny I think is horrific, and vice versa. We have rules and regulators which provide for professionals to determine what the current suitable limits are for broadcasters, and to enforce and sanction around the fringes. This is necessary because, no matter how much a passionate individual believes that something is a black and white issue, there will always be an opposing voice from somewhere. This country has produced Oswald Mosley, Richard Dawkins and Mary Whitehouse, and we should be proud of that, even if we agree with none of their positions.
The biggest risk, which as the outraged opinion pieces are dying down is starting to be discussed more seriously, is that the new, neutered BBC, will take significantly fewer risks in comedy. And you have to take risks with comedy: otherwise you’re just chasing the tails of anyone with more balls than you. There are very few things I’ve laughed out loud at that won’t upset someone, which is simply the nature of humour. Jim Davidson was once the funniest man on television, Graham Norton once raised eyebrows with his Mother Teresa drag act – and although opinion is divided over Brand and Ross’s actions in October, even the most stupid, ignorant and insular idiot who doesn’t read the Mail on Sunday can accept this means that some people find them incredibly funny.
So no, I didn’t laugh at the joke. But let’s be reasonable: they killed that night.