Brand scandal has U.K. in frenzy

BBC prank catches Prime Minister's eye

LONDON — Has the world gone completely insane? That was the question seasoned British media watchers have been asking themselves all week long. The always quotable ex-head of Endemol UK perhaps best summed up the situation when he told the Financial Times: “The world is falling down around our eyes, the financial system is destroyed, there are various genocides going on and Gordon Brown (the British Prime Minister) has an opinion on Russell Brand. God help us.”

He has a point but Peter Bazalgette, like Brand, is a professional mischief monger. He is also forever associated in Blighty with reality TV super tanker “Big Brother,” which not so long ago was the cause of a similar row involving editorial standards at Channel 4, and supports selling off parts of the BBC, including Radio 2, to the private sector. Alas, the prospect of Radio 2, by a huge margin the most successful radio station in the UK, being privatized becomes more likely in a week that has been a perfect storm for the BBC, which once again capitulated to public pressure.

By week’s end, three scalps had been claimed by this lamentable tale — Brand, who’d lost his Radio 2 show, Jonathan Ross, suspended by the Corp for three months on no pay, and Lesley Douglas, head of Radio 2.  

The most regrettable of these hasty exits was that of the highly accomplished Douglas. She became the second BBC program topper to resign from the BBC in a little over a year. In the fall of 2007, Peter Fincham, BBC1 controller, another highly talented creative, resigned when an inquiry discovered management failures after he had, wrongly as it turned out, told the press that no lesser figure than the Queen had stormed out of a photo-shoot. 

The problem is that as inflated as the “Sachsgate” sage became, with virtually half the nation contacting the Beeb to complain about the off-color remarks left by Brand and Ross on Andrew Sachs’ answer-message machine, the anti-BBC lobby has a point. Whatever you think about the prank— and straw polls suggest the under-25s thought it was hilarious while more mature heads were appalled by Ross telling Sachs that Brand had slept with his granddaughter — there is absolutely no doubt that the BBC’s response to the ensuing row was totally inadequate.

To be clear: the broadcast occurred on October 18. There were just two complaints. Eight days later the Mail On Sunday, no friend of the BBC’s or Ross’s, published the story. Fast forward 48 hours and “Sachsgate” has mushroomed into the biggest news story in the U.K. eclipsing the recession, the appalling humanitarian tragedy in the Congo and the U.S. Presidential elections.

Had the BBC, which employs more spin doctors than Russell Brand has girlfriends, followed up the Mail on Sunday with a robust apology and the announcement of a full inquiry into why the broadcast was greenlit, the controversy would have been quickly extinguished.

Instead, the BBC has been dragged through the mire in what may well be the biggest crisis to hit the world’s most famous pubcaster since the Hutton investigation led to the double resignations of then director-general Greg Dyke and chairman Gavin Davies.

Today director-general Mark Thompson and the present chairman, Sir Michael Lyons, still have their BBC jobs. Despite all the usual waffle promising that “editorial processes” will be tightened to ensure there is no repeat of “Sachsgate,” Thompson is one of the walking wounded. Following a bungled set of negotiations over the BBC license fee and last year’s scandal over faked phone-in competitions in BBC programs, including children’s shows, Thompson’s leadership of this great organization has fallen short of the high expectations that greeted his appointment in 2004.

If another of Thompson’s lieutenants resigns on his watch, he too will be joining Brand in the job queue. But he, unlike, Brand can’t just walk away from the wreckage and sign another Hollywood contract.