Closing the gate 

3 April 2009 tbs.pm/1038

BBC fined £150,000 over Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross phone prank scandal

‘Sachsgate’ was basically the culmination of what can happen when star talent who have their own production company are given too much control over their own radio show, with nobody on hand to be a steadying influence. It was Russell Brand and his production company that were wholly trusted with delivering the goods, and on this occasion they failed.

If anything this was a throwback to the era when BBC staff were predominantly left to their own devices in the knowledge that they were professional enough to do their job to the best of their abilities, and despite a small number of incidents such as ‘Sachsgate’ this system still does work remarkably well, all things considered.

What made matters worse in this case was ‘Sachsgate’ following on from a succession of recent lapses in relation to the handling of premium rate interactive services within the media industry as a whole, which in turn brought into sharp focus the very long-standing practice of ‘fixing’ broadcast-related events in order to ensure the smooth running of a production.

Make no mistake, this event was a serious breach of the compliance rules even though the people on the receiving end (Andrew Sachs and Georgina Baillie) weren’t seriously offended, although of course you can’t properly assess whether these people were privately more upset than they will openly admit in public.

However it must be remembered that this was a one-off event that was inflamed by certain tabloid newspapers (step forward the Daily Mail) because it featured their two pet hate subjects: moral ‘outrage’ at the BBC, and Jonathan Ross’s salary. If this had just involved Russell Brand then ‘Sachsgate’ may not have gained quite the same level of traction.

Most licence fee-payers probably didn’t care about either the event itself or the moral outpouring and self-flagellation that duly followed, but the underlying compliance issue(s) were a problem-in-waiting, and it was perhaps fortunate that the broadcast didn’t result in a tragic outcome such as someone committing suicide.

A lack of any tragic outcome is a red herring for anyone who claims that the incident was just a bit of fun (and may have found it to be amusing), along with the fact that hardly anyone complained about the broadcast at the time. The sort of person who enjoys watching a bullfight isn’t necessarily going to protest about cruelty to animals, are they?

Whether it is in the interest of licence fee-payers that Ofcom should fine the BBC such an amount is another issue entirely, even though the actual amount still isn’t huge in relation to the total amount of money that is spent yearly on television and radio production – just compare this fine to what was spent annually on Jonathan Ross and his production company.

‘Sachsgate’ as a story may now be almost dead and buried, but Jonathan Ross is still at the BBC and relatively unscathed from a superficial perspective, which means that his detractors will still be attacking him from the sidelines.

This may be a mixed blessing for the BBC in so much as perhaps helping to deflect the attention of the tabloid press away from direct criticism of the licence fee along with the potential of giving Ross extra credibility amongst some of his fans.

However the corporation as a whole would be strongly advised to take on board any lessons learnt from this incident, because if something like this happens again, the BBC may start to lose the support of a key proportion of potentially influential licence fee payers.