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A sense of perspective
The world is in a mess but what are all the British media talking about? The unpleasant behaviour of two ego-driven celebrities
Friday October 31 2008
A bomb goes off in Kabul in the midst of an increasingly bloody conflict in Afghanistan. A seminal US election moves into its closing days. The country ? the world ? sinks deeper into global recession as governments scramble to prevent meltdown. "Countless" people flee armed militias in the Congo in what could be the start of a humanitarian catastrophe.
And yet the entire news media is fixated by two ego-driven presenters who acted in a deeply unpleasant way towards an innocent grandfather.
The Russell Brand/Jonathan Ross affair illuminates much of what is wrong with the news media in Britain ? though not in the way you might expect.
It does not show that the BBC is an "amoral organisation" or that it is sliding into "the broadcasting gutter", as the Daily Mail has claimed. It does not show that the BBC is producing programmes that "legitimise negative social behaviour', as the shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Jeremy Hunt, has suggested. Nor was it either proportionate or sensible to call Thursday "A Day of Reckoning" (also from the Daily Mail) as though there was some sort of Biblical Judgment Day.
What it does show is the media fixation with itself. It shows the media obsession with celebrities ? especially celebrities behaving badly. It shows the media's astonishing herd instinct. And it shows the media's inability to distinguish the important from the less important. It demonstrates, in other words, the complete absence of any sense of news values.
One would have thought that the events of the last 12 months would have reminded journalists that there are more important things in the world than celebrity misbehaviour. Since Northern Rock was nationalised the economy of the UK and the world has been spiralling towards an abyss. Home repossessions are up by 71%. The banking system teeters on the edge of collapse. Unemployment is rising. And this in the context of incipient environmental devastation.
So why, if this is the case, has the story generated so much airtime and column inches? Why has it attracted more than 30,000 complaints and sparked countless comments and debates across the net? (At the time of writing 39,278 comments have been posted to the BBC's Have Your Say.)
Partly because of the newspapers themselves. It should be remembered that immediately following the Brand-Ross broadcast itself, on October 18, there were only two complaints. There was no mention of it in the Sunday Times on the October 19, though there was a piece by Jonathan Ross himself, "Fame and how to survive it", which now has a ring of irony (not least in Ross's comment: "Radio helped me get my foot back in the door. It was while I was at Virgin with Chris [Evans], who encouraged me to do more or less what I wanted, that I really learnt to trust my own judgment about what works and what doesn't"). Nor was the broadcast mentioned in a blog on the Independent's website on October 21, which revealed that Ross's "first sexual experience was with a vacuum cleaner".
It was only when the story appeared in the Mail on Sunday, more than a week after the broadcast, that complaints began to escalate.
It has also generated public interest because it was a nasty and unpleasant thing to do. Most of us have, at some stage in our lives, been bullied, and this certainly qualifies as bullying. Not only that, but bullying of someone who is, reputedly, distinguished by his gentle courtesy and good humour.
Nasty and unpleasant as it was, though, does it deserve the coverage it has received? No, it does not. Nastiness and bullying by celebrities should be exposed but should not obscure coverage of the bloodletting in Afghanistan, Iraq or the Congo. Neither should it overshadow coverage of the government's decisions on interest rates, or on student grants, or on the profits of oil companies, from the press.
Brand and Ross's actions should be examined and each of them dealt with accordingly by the BBC. The presenters and corporation should apologise to Mr Sachs. Then we can move on.
Yet the newspapers have not moved on. They have revelled in the BBC's discomfort. They have delighted in the statements by political party leaders, in the populist comments from Jack Straw and Jeremy Hunt, and in the thundering from commentators like Stephen Glover and Piers Morgan (paragon of virtue he). It should be noted that the politicians' voices were notably silent after the newspapers were indicted for their behaviour towards the McCanns, Robert Murat, and the so-called Tapas Seven.
The papers have not moved on because it is in their self-interest to drum up this issue. The press are angry at the BBC ? not for its moral stance, but for the fact that it has a guaranteed income while they watch their revenues fall. They are angry that it is competing with them online, and may extend that competition to local news.
But most importantly the papers have not moved on because they know this is news that interests the public ? as opposed to news in the public interest. Though the two have always been blurred they now appear to be indistinguishable. Broadsheet and tabloid, television and internet ? almost no UK national news medium seems able to make a distinction between the two. As a result we find our media raging against an incident most of us never heard or saw, that has no direct bearing on our lives, by two people we don't know.
Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008
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