The Price of Profanity

While Americans are focused on the run-up to the General Election, Brits are in a frenzy over a late night prank on BBC Radio 2. Now you might think that put in perspective, the Russell Brand/Jonathan Ross scandal is insignificant. Perhaps it is. But in and of itself, it is quite significant.

There are a significant number of people who think it is much ado about nothing. They argue that only two people complained when the broadcast went out and that it was only the national media outlets that have churned up the froth. Listeners to the more youth-oriented Radio 1 appear to be mostly in support of Brand and Ross. It says a lot about Radio 1 listeners that they have found the abusive and obscene phone calls to 78-year-old Andrew Sachs amusing.

For those blissfully unaware, Brand and Ross placed four telephone calls to the actor whose most famous role was as Manuel on Fawlty Towers. Using the crudest language, they describe how Brand had slept with Sach’s granddaughter. They also joked that Sachs might kill himself. That’s the bit that made the pre-recorded broadcast. Senior producers who signed off on it, actually cut fouteen lines of the dialogue. Sensitive readers might not want to click here for a transcript of what was said.

To draw an American analogy, it was basically like a Howard Stern routine with all of the obscenity explicit rather than implied. The other difference is that it was funded by license payers – in other words, everyone who owns a television. Television viewer pay for all of BBC Radio, with our forced £139.50 per year charged by the government (or fines of up to £1000 for failure to pay, and roaming enforcement vans with electronic spying equipment to catch offenders). If you had to pay $240 a year for other people to listen to Howard Stern say things for which he would be fined by the FCC, you might have something to say as well.

Jonathan Ross is the highest paid performer at the BBC, getting £6 million per year for crude and juvenile humour. When over 2,000 job cuts were announced at BBC News soon after he sealed his £18 million three-year deal, Ross openy boasted that he was worth more than 1,000 journalists. Russell Brand was on a mere £200,000 for an act that is entirey based on graphic details of his sexual exploits and proclivities.

Those who support Ross and Brand believe that entertainment, and particularly language, should have no boundaries – that there is nothing actually indecent. Well, you can’t say anything about Muslims, but other than that, everything is fair game. (And the whole Muslim thing is driven by fear rather than decency.)  Worse than that, it is a philosophy that anything that gets a laugh is acceptable regardless of who is hurts or offends.

Will the resignation of Russell Brand and the £1 million discipline of Jonathan Ross change the face of entertainment? No. Willing the BBC become a more decent place? Perhaps for a time, while everyone holds their breath waiting for the furore to settle. Sadly, I think that the values that underpin the glorfication of profanity are well entrenched, particularly amongst the young, and this creates a vicious cycle. The media panders to the profane and the profane become evermore acceptable, creating a greater appetite for it in entertainment.


4 Responses to “The Price of Profanity”

  1. Christopher Adkins Says:

    As an American I am trying to understand — but quite frankly cannot justify (in my own mind) the BBC reaction which seems a bit strong for what was said.

    Using your example — I do not care what Howard Stern has to say and do find much of his actions and comments repulsive — but I would defend (perhaps not to the death 😉 his right to say what he feels.

    I feel comedy provides an outlet to say things that perhaps we are all thinking, but would never utter in polite society. Perhaps the BBC should lighten up a bit.

  2. Stephen Scott Says:

    I’m an American; I understand, and I agree with you 100%. You shouldn’t have to pay for this. It would be one thing, if you wanted to hear this type of thing , and then paid for it from a private provider, but that is clearly not the case here; even then, calling someone to leave those messages, and intrude upon that person’s private sanctity, is wrong. Furthermore, you pay for the government to protect you from both physical and mental harm, and for a government sponsored program, phoning a senior to comment on his granddaughter’s personal life, well that is damaging to a reputation and no doubt constitutes mental abuse.

    My compatriot’s statement, which says you should “lighten up”, rubs me the wrong way. Polite society is polite, because people in that society do not make vulgar jokes about one another. In fact, people don’t say these things at parties or group settings for fear of physical reprisal, so why should they say it on the air?

  3. Mary Says:

    Roaming vans????? Surveillance equipment???? At $10+/gal for gasoline? Absurd. Really absurd. Not to mention all that Mr. Scott says above with which I agree wholeheartedly.

  4. sol Says:


    By “roaming” I didn’t mean to imply that they just drive up and down streets at random. I mean they go around to suspect addresses and use detection equipment outside. They have a database of every address in the UK and they know who has paid and who hasn’t. According to their latest report (warning: pdf file, so it might take a few seconds to download) they made 3.5 million visits in 2006/07 up from 2.9 million 2005/06, so you can see the way the enforcement trend is going.


    The problem is that the BBC has been very lightened up, so to speak, with an “anything goes” mentality. Don’t forget, what Ross and Brand did was commit four consecutive criminal offenses while I paid for their salaries and all of the other costs of broadcasting. Just like anyone else who receives an obscene phone call, Andrew Sachs was within his rights to have made a complaint to the police and chose not to do so. And you have to admit in this case, it would have been pretty easy to have built the case and prosecute it.

    In fact, given the language that was used, it is possible that each presenter committed at least two offences with each phone calls. They appear to have violated Section 1 of the Malicious Communications Act 1998, Section 43 of the Telecommunications Act 1984, Section 92 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, (all of which may possibly be bundled into one offense) and Section 4 of the Public Order Act 1986. And all of this unrelated to the fact that it was also broadcast. The broadcast just provides incontrovertible evidence of the offenses.

    That Jonathan Ross got paid £16,000 of his contract that day for committing those offenses is just icing on the cake.

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