Sunday, April 12, 2009

David Mitchell is righter than right

I cannot begin to tell you how much I agree with David Mitchell's column in yesterday's Guardian. In case you missed it, here it is in full:

I was deeply offended by something on the BBC recently. It wasn't Clare Balding laying into a jockey's teeth, but this time with a cricket bat, or Frankie Boyle's 10 best jokes about the Queen's genitals, or even a repeat of Diana's funeral with an added laugh track. No, it was a new low. It was Hazel Blears, the communities secretary, eliciting a round of applause on Any Questions for suggesting that Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand should pay the BBC's "Sachsgate" Ofcom fine. The rest of the panel bravely agreed with her.

"Well, you would be offended by that!" you may be thinking. "You work in television and radio. I don't suppose you like the idea of having to foot the bill if something you say appals the nation!" That's true, but we live in the era of the subjective offendee and my complaint is just as valid as those made about jokes involving dead dogs by viewers who say their dog has recently died. As an insider, I can tell you that such opinions are deferred to by the post-Sachsgate BBC. Everything is scrutinised for potential offence by jumpy "compliance" staff who endure no professional setback if the comedy output ceases to be funny. They have the right to do this because they're ultimately responsible for what's broadcast - their organisation pays the Ofcom fine.

But it strikes me that, if I'm going to have to pay the fine, they no longer have the right to censor the content. And it's all academic anyway; if things continue as they are, TV comedies will only ever get fined for blandness. Let me try to fake some objectivity and seriously address Blears's suggestion, which has since been reiterated by Jack Straw and Tessa Jowell. She says it's unjust that the fine comes out of the licence fee, paid for by everyone, so instead the wrongdoers should pay.

There are only four problems I can instantly think of with this. First, this idea of a net cost to the licence fee payer is nonsense; Ross was suspended for three months, saving the BBC £1.5m, and Brand resigned, saving it £200,000 a year. So the licence fee payer is well up on the deal and Ross and Brand have each taken a greater hit than the corporation will.

Second, Blears defines the wrong-doers as only Ross and Brand and gives the BBC's producers and executives no share of the blame. This is grossly unfair. The offending segment was pre-recorded. As a sick comedian myself, I genuinely understand how they could improvise something that offensive in that context. But I cannot understand why the station chose to broadcast it. So the then channel controller, among others, is at least as much at fault. But she's not as rich, so suggesting she pays a massive fine is a less applausey route for Blears to take.

Third, Blears says that regulators' fines are supposed to hurt those responsible and that, in this instance, there was "no sense they're going to be hurt". I don't know whether the fine will hurt the BBC or whether it would particularly hurt Brand and Ross if they paid it, but how can she possibly think that the fallout from the whole business hasn't hurt that institution and those men? Barely a day goes by when the press doesn't pillory them as a result and the announcement of this fine has given it another splendid opportunity, as have Blears's remarks. Far from the arrogant, unaccountable elite that it's portrayed as, the BBC is now a quivering shell, rattling with neurotics. The only truth in her statement is that even losing £150,000 could barely make it more miserable.

And fourth, the law requires that the BBC pay the fine rather than individuals. This is not a law that Blears, Straw or Jowell has ever queried before. But they're willing to come out against it for a short-term popularity boost for a beleaguered government - for an egg-cup sized bailer on the Titanic, for one round of applause. That's what I really despise: the political opportunism. How long do these ministers imagine the friendships in the rabblerousing tabloids that they are so buying will last? And the price is high; they're supporting a campaign to associate the BBC, its comedians and producers - my whole profession - with all that is offensive, smug and self-serving; to encourage millions who are justifiably angry or afraid, who imagine a mugger in every hoodie, who fear for their jobs and houses or have lost both, to associate the causes of that fear and anger with entertainment and, of all things, the BBC.

The BBC is an institution of genius, one of the great achievements of the 20th century. It's famed for its news reporting, drama, comedy and documentaries; it provides the best radio stations and website on Earth. But there is a plot to destroy it; a plot to which Ross and Brand's childish remarks gave an unwitting but enormous boost; a plot led by people who say they support the BBC but not the licence fee, by people who find the word "fuck" more offensive than Holocaust denial. By its competitors.

The newspapers that take every opportunity to knock the corporation do so because they're in the same market and the BBC is the market leader. They can't dominate that market while the BBC exists in its current form because what they provide is so risibly inferior - the licence fee costs less than a daily tabloid newspaper. So they lobby for its destruction and whinge about the profit made by its commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, neglecting to mention how much money that saves the licence fee payer. Without the BBC, they'd make more money, even if the whole nation would be left comparatively uneducated, unentertained and uninformed. Their argument is the moral equivalent of private hospitals campaigning against the existence of the NHS. And last week, three members of a Labour government joined in.

I don't think that those ministers really want to damage or destroy the BBC, but they're willing to risk it on the outside chance of saving their political skins. I, for one, find that very difficult to forgive. But then I'm easily offended.

Absolutely spot on David. POliticians are hugely skilled at covering their own sleaze by pointing out the mistakes of others. But if you disagree and would rather have a bland, dull, non-edgy, homogenised BBC then make sure you buy your whingeing tabloid tomorrow.

If I see you, I'll point at you and call you a bad word.


Stuart Peel said...

Quite right, the barbarians are at the BBC's gate, let's make sure they don't get in.

chris hale said...


I have a house in Seaford, and a broom cupboard in Brent. Despite the fact I live with my family in Seaford, I'd like to register the cupboard as my main residence. Oh, and claim £20K a year for it. Is that OK, do you think?

Winifred said...

Yep politicians are very good at deflecting criticism and getting us to take our eye off the ball. The last lot were exactly the same.

Brand & Ross were offensive but for goodness sake it's over and done with. Why rake it up?

The BBC has its faults like trying to create news rather than report it - I remember the Northern Rock saga very well and the panic they and the rest of the media created. You just expect better from the BBC.

However like you say it's a great institution with brilliant radio and the best website on the planet. So keep your hands off it politicians and keep your own noses clean and your subsidised houses in order.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Absolutely right. This is also linked to the increasing trend to make the individual responsible. Governments and industry are no longer responsible for the mistakes of their employees which makes it easier to scare employees and limits corporate litigation.

joelmead said...

I agree with Anonymous although that last point is a bit obscure:)

John Soanes said...

Really, Joel? I thought Anonymous, like the government a couple of years ago, could be accused of sexing up the discussion.

But Mr Mitchell makes a valid point - as indeed does Mr Brand when he points at the lies about going to war, and the evasion about MPs' expenses, as being a hell of a plank in his accusers' eyes.


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Jon M said...

So So right. Spare me from Fox!

Stevyn Colgan said...

It's gratifying to see that lots of people agree with me (and David). especially Ed and Anonymous.