Mixed messages 

29 October 2008 tbs.pm/962

I’m not a fan of either Ross or Brand; I have no comment on the question as to whether or not they are overpaid; and I certainly think that the messages on Mr Sachs’s answering machine were ill-advised – and even more so that they were broadcast. Indeed, there are two distinct aspects here: the deed itself and broadcasting the doing thereof. I certainly think it’s bad etiquette at the very least to have a scene with someone and then publicise that fact in a potentially offensive way without the agreement of the other party.

But there are some minor mysteries here to which I would like to know the answers.

First, it would be one thing if this had been a live show and the calls had been made on the spur of the moment in that context. But this was not the case. It was recorded. Recording a show is useful, but potentially a double-edged sword. You have much more control because you can cut out offensive bits before they go to air; but at the same time, participants may be less inhibited because they know that you can (assuming you have your ears open) cut out the offensive bits. The latter is not necessarily a bad thing, especially in comedy where to be effective you really need to live on the edge, but surely someone should have listened more carefully to the programme and considered whether that segment should go out or not. That person is, I would suggest, the person at fault here, as far as the public side of the affair is concerned. One might point the finger at BBC producer Nic Philps in this regard, but the Daily Mail notes that “a senior executive” also allowed the segment to go on-air.

Curiously, therefore, I find myself agreeing with Mr Cameron, when he says “The main question is why did they allow this programme to be broadcast, given that it was pre-recorded? …we need to know who made the decision to broadcast it? How high up the editorial chain did it go?”

As an aside, is it just me, or is it reasonable to think that the BBC would have more control over potential problems if programmes were produced entirely by the Corporation itself and not by independent production companies? The last content-related faux pas – the editing of the trailer for a series on The Queen – was the result of an unfortunate choice by an external outfit.

Second, why did it take a week for anything to happen? Suddenly this all exploded the other day, but that was over a week after the programme went out. In the intervening period there were no complaints about that element of the programme – indeed, there were apparently only two complaints of any kind. This suggests that the torrent of complaints now being experienced by the BBC is from people who never heard the programme – something which always sounds a bit bizarre to me, ever since Mary Whitehouse used to do it habitually. By all means complain about something you’ve heard. But complain about something you haven’t listened to? Hmmm. Of course you can complain about something conceptually, but… it’s not quite the same somehow: a bit second-hand.

We may have a partial answer to the question of why it took so long. According to the BBC web site, for example, on Wednesday 22nd, a journalist on the Mail On Sunday contacted Sachs’s agent for a comment on the programme segment and Sachs and his agent subsequently listened to it together. This experience left Sachs, says the BBC website article, “offended very much indeed”. We do not, of course, know if he was previously offended by the messages on his answering machine, though it seems likely. We also don’t know if this was how the episode finally came to everyone’s attention, although presumably the Mail is implicated.

Apparently, again according to the BBC web site, Mr Sachs was called by Mr Philps, after the recording and before the broadcast. Sachs said, “the producer called me on my mobile to ask whether they could play the recording in question”. We don’t know whether he said yes or no. He did say that the recording played down the line to him was indistinct; but he must have heard enough to note that: “I asked whether they would consider allowing me to come in the following week and then the recorded segment would not have to be included.”

Georgina Baillie seems, understandably, to be very upset as reported by a video interview published on The Sun‘s web site, and one can certainly sympathise with her feeling “betrayed” as has been reported at a private matter made public and in this particularly offensive manner; and being even more upset by the jibe that the revelation might cause Sachs to kill himself.

I think we can safely assume that this was not all a publicity stunt for her that went wrong, despite suggestions to the contrary in some quarters. The injured parties here are Sachs and Baillie: the latter calls for Ross and Brand to lose their jobs, and, quite honestly, as the offended parties, Sachs and his granddaughter have the perfect right to call for whatever punishment they think fit. Indeed, they are probably the first people to be listened to on this: not the politicians, or the tabloids, or me.

Meanwhile The Sun was so outraged by the whole affair that it felt obliged to publish Miss Baillie’s topless tryout pics for Page 3. One can’t help being amused at the double standards the tabloids always seem to exhibit at times like these.