Two weeks ago, the BBC had received only two complaints following the harassment of Andrew Sachs on Radio 2. Russell Brand’s radio show attracts 380,000 listeners a week and only two people complained. How disappointing – Brand must have thought – must be more controversial.
The answer machine messages to the now elderly Fawlty Towers star were clearly distasteful. But it is no different to the risky humour we frequently witness from comedians on TV. Brand has done worse, dressing up as Osama Bin Laden a day after 9/11. So has Ross, most notably when he said he wouldn’t be surprised if Heather Mills had two legs. Look further afield and it’s just as outrageous. Bernard Manning was on Radio 4 in 2002 defending Hitler. And on Mock this Week on BBC2 last Wednesday, a comedian joked the Queen would say “I’m now so old, my pussy is haunted” during the Queen’s Speech . So why have nearly 40,000 people complained over this affair?
Well, the truth of the matter is that a lot of people complained about what Ross and Brand stand for, not what they said. These are tough economic times. Inflation is at 5.2% and 3 million face the unemployment at the end of 2010. Sainsbury’s shoppers no longer gaze admirably up the social rank to what they can achieve; they look down the social ladder, joining struggling families across the country to rally for protection from the injustices of negative equity and housing repossession inflicted upon them by the super-rich. People are angry, angry with the super-rich who they blame for this financial mess. Jonathon Ross, who signed an £18 million contract in 2006, and Russell Brand are members of the super-rich, joining the other well-paid celebrities and top city folk who form the metropolitan elite. And their annual salary, which most people wouldn’t earn in a lifetime, is funded through the license fee which taxpayers pay for. As mere mortals deal with Beans for dinner and a suspension of the conservatory they’ve been planning to build for years, they loathe the fact that they have to finance the lavish lifestyles and cocky arrogance of idiots like Jonathan Ross and city boys. This is why tens of thousands complained, surely.
Now, I’m not here to defend the super-rich. Nor am I here to excuse what Ross and Brand did. But it is worth highlighting the cunning game the Government played with this story. They wanted the story to run on and on. Two of the most senior figures in the Labour party stepped in: Gordon Brown last Tuesday called Brand’s and Ross’s behaviour “inappropriate and unacceptable” and Jack Straw last Thursday called for the pair to be sacked. This is masterful politicking. Let me explain why.
Brown may be enjoying his current role as saviour of the financial universe but as the recession really bites this winter, the papers bringing more bad news, the voters will become increasingly frustrated with the Government. Stories which divert anger towards something else other than the Government is obviously a good thing for Labour.
Remember too that the shock re-emergence of Messrs Campbell and Mandelson means back to the New Labour strategy of focusing on wooing Middle England. When Government expresses disappointment with juvenile, obnoxious, overpaid comedians, it makes middle-class moralists from the Midlands believe the Government is on their side.
Most crucially, Labour wants to continue the ammunition against the super-rich. Get tough on the financial sector. Cut bonuses. Attack multi-millionaire comedians. Generate the narrative that the rich is public enemy one. This is not good for the Tories. David Cameron knows the biggest weak spot of his party is looking like out of touch rich folk. Labour have overseen a massive rise in executive pay and canoodled with extremely wealthy businessmen, true, but still the public think the Tories are the ones most associated with wealth and privilege. The more people resent the rich, the more people will turn off the Tories. Labour, meanwhile, are able to use the same old card of supposedly being on the side of struggling families. And that message will work because a widening group of people, hit by the recession, regard themselves as in this category.
The Tories need to be careful when criticising Jonathon Ross and Russell Brand. The story simply fuels more antagonism towards wealth, which the Tories are perceived to be associated with. Downing Street knows this is the weakness of Cameron and Co. This is why they targeted George Osborne so militantly in October, for in this anti-rich climate, the Bullingdon boy is an acceptable target to criticise and bully. But the Government should take a step back and see what it has done by using this BBC saga for political gains: super-rich Ross and Brand are not the only ones to have lost out, but also Lesley Douglas - who has devoted her life to the BBC since 1986 and is regarded as highly popular among colleagues – and now must give up her passion for the sake of a story blown deliberately out of proportion.
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