Friday, April 03, 2009

British public fined for Russell Brand's errors

So, Ofcom has decided that the BBC must pay for the Russell Brand phonecalls - or, rather, the licence fee payer has to stump up £150,000.

Given Jonathan Ross was suspended for three months without pay as a result of the phone calls, technically the BBC are still going to come out of the deal a few thousand ahead, but the sense of fining the BBC still makes little sense: that's the money we give them to make programmes with. So, in effect, we're having our money taken away and given to the government for something we didn't do. If there must be fines levied against the BBC, should they not come from management's wages - or the independent production company who made the programmes - and not from licence fee money? How does it fit with Ofcom's other work to ensure that there's enough money for public service broadcasting if it takes money away from the only place that is making it?

Ofcom doesn't seem interested, either, that most of the complaints came from people who hadn't heard the programme, and only were outraged at the descriptions of the event they read in the papers. It acknowledges, but doesn't comment:

After the programme of 18 October 2008, the BBC had received 2 complaints from listeners. However, on the Monday (27 October) after the programme of 25 October 2008 and following articles in the national press, the BBC received a further 546 complaints. The total number of complaints finally received by the BBC about Russell Brand was 42,851.

It doesn't alter the question if the programme should have been broadcast, but shouldn't Ofcom at least be starting a debate about this? People were upset not by the radio programme, but by the Mail's coverage of the radio programme. Should Ofcom really be responding to complaints from people who have only been alerted by a newspaper piece? 42,849 complainants had learned about Baillie's private life from the Mail On Sunday, not from Radio 2. Who was the actual broadcaster here?

It's especially odd that Ofcom seems most upset about the invasion of Georgina Baillie and Andrew Sachs' privacy - although she didn't actually complain herself, and he explicitly didn't want to:
In response to Andrew Sachs’ agent, Ofcom acknowledged receipt of the copy of the complaint and noted that Ofcom had “not received any Fairness or Privacy complaint from Andrew Sachs or his granddaughter.” Andrew Sachs’ agent then informed Ofcom that Mr Sachs “has no further complaint he wants to make.”

And in fact, given that within a few days Baillie was signing off on a nationwide poster campaign for a Channel Five programme which said "Now we'll give Georgina the chance to screw them both", it doesn't seem that Baillie was that bothered at all. It doesn't excuse what Brand and Ross did, but it's a bit weird protecting the privacy of someone who doesn't appear to be that upset at the supposed invasion and of another who made it clear they wouldn't be making a formal complaint about privacy.

If I'm understanding this correctly, then, the invasion of the pair's privacy was investigated not because the victims complained, but because a bunch of newspaper readers complained. An ugly public mob demanding that people who had elected to try and move on have their privacy defended, whether they wanted it or not. Let's go and drag Sachs into the street, bring him out his house, and make sure we protect his privacy by kicking off another round of stories about how his Granddaughter had poor taste in men.

One further piece on the affair: Ofcom have also issued a judgement against a Chris Moyles show for an interview he did with Brand. No fine for this, but it is another public drubbing for Moyles. Perhaps Parfitt might need to call him in again.


Jim W said...

Interesting, as always...

"Should Ofcom really be responding to complaints from people who have only been alerted by a newspaper piece?"

I'd be interested to know your views on the recent Sunday Express 'Dunblane' story and the enforced apology after the web campaign. Most of us were only alerted by Graham Lineham's blog/the Facebook group that highlighted the sickening story. Both were issues 'moral decency' even if the scale was slightly different. I joined the Facebook group and was fairly disgusted even thought I'd never have even heard of the Scottish Express story if I hadn't been pointed towards it. A similar case?

Similarly, are you able to complain about serious crimes of bad taste against individuals (ie. OK publishing a memorial issue before the death) if the subject is apparently acquiescent.

simon h b said...

A very good question, Jim, and a difficult one - it does throw into relief the different regulatory systems applying to the press and the broadcasters.

There were two basis for the complaints: the taste, and the privacy.

On taste: I don't think there's a problem with the Mail running stories about the programme, and encouraging its audience to complain to the BBC; to demand an apology; to suggest people boycott Radio 2 until filth ceases to be flung.

Likewise, the Linehan/Facebook campaign was about bringing pressure directly on the paper.

There seems to be a distinct line being crossed when the regulator is responding to these pressures, though; the point of the regulator, surely, is to protect the audience - not everyone. It's why things that are acceptable in, say, a fashion magazine like Pop would be wrong in a magazine aimed at preteens like the NME.

Nobody who heard the programme complained to Ofcom, which suggests that the programme didn't breach the expectations of the audience who tuned in.

The other question, of privacy, it seems absurd that Ofcom can even consider when the supposed 'victims' have not complained themselves. If either Sachs or Baillie were minors or wards of court, perhaps there's an argument that a third party could complain on their behalf, but when they've explicitly said they don't want Ofcom to investigate, it seems odd to conclude that their private lives should be "protected" against their wills.

If Sachs really was upset at the BBC running stories about his grandaughter's sex life, would be all that comfortable at the broadcasting regulator repeating those claims in pdf and HTML on their websites when he'd asked them not to?

Whereas some of those targeted by the Sunday Express had complained about the breach of privacy to the PCC.

A long answer, then, and a scruffy one, but I think it comes down to this: you can be outraged, and protest about an organisation doing things of which you disapprove.

But the regulators, and the official sanctions, should be reserved for those who have had their expectations (of not being offended in the context of consumption, of not having your privacy invaded) confounded.

Jim W said...

Nice distinction.

But I'm not that that the role of the regulator is only to protect the target audience from content that goes beyond expectations of 'reasonable limits' on certain shows.

Let's create an apocryphal late night TalkSport phone-in on immigration. If the content developed into outright vicious racism then there would be outrage in the press and protests outside their offices. The entire firm would be under seige. Yet the content might not be much beyond what the TalkSport listeners that night were expecting. (Aren't stereotypes and brush/tar combinations fun?)

Essentially the idea of 'an audience' for a programme as the group of people listening or watching a particular broadcast at a certain time seems outdated. The influence of a programme is not who was listening to it live but how it is reported in the press, online and via the required Facebook group. The people who read those secondary sources then become the audience, whether they heard it live or not. At some level I reserve the right to be offended by a programme whether I heard it live or read a transcript online a month later.

Just one of many problems with the current regulatory system. And also with trying to combine my beliefs in internet libertarian anrchy with some basic levels of moral decency.

simon h b said...

I take your point.

Although your theoretical TalkSport broadcast could be arguably illegal as well as a breach of regulatory guidelines, which would push it into a whole different area - and if, let's say, the racism was directed at the Latvians, because the effects of the broadcast would directly affect Latvians whether they heard the programme or not, they'd be able to complain directly to the regulator. In the same way that Andrew Sachs could complain about undue interference in his life, whether he'd heard Radio 2 or not.

But it's a tricky one, isn't it? Looking at the Brand thing, it would have been handy had Ofcom been able to split the post-Mail complaints into people who had heard the programme and those who were just disgusted from the description.

Let's imagine I'm running a website which features hardcore frog pornography. And the Daily Mail runs a report saying ' is disgusting beyond belief', and some of its readers go to look at the site and are disgusted as a result.

Should there be regulatory protection for people who are told there is something they will be upset by, and then go and get upset?

Should there be regulatory protection for people who get upset at the idea of something they've been told about?

It's difficult - I don't know if there's even hope of a balance which could be found that would work for everyone. That's why its disappointing that Ofcom didn't even think it was worth starting a debate on what its approach should be in cases like this one.

Anonymous said...

I just read your comment and somehow, despite a strong temptation to try, manage to avoid looking to see if exists. It was pretty tough to resist. Even now I'm wondering...

It does, however, make me realise something I should've considered before. Isn't it surprising that Mail readers don't complain about some of the filth printed in the pages of the National Geographic "magazine". Disgusting.

simon h b said...

"... and the worst of it is, it's foreigners taking jobs of being topless in magazines away from British topless workers..."

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