November 1, 2008 1:52 am

Heads roll at BBC over lewd radio show

The global economy heads to the brink of ruin, the most important US election for a generation reaches its climax and the UK media has eyes for nothing much else but the coarse antics of two performers on a late-night radio show.

A string of dirty jokes at the expense of a 78-year-old actor and his burlesque-artiste granddaughter has cost one of the BBC’s most successful executives her job and perhaps widened a generational gap in UK society.

In what many outsiders will see as an oddly British obsession, acres of newsprint and hours of television and radio have been taken up with Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross – two of the most controversial stars of the BBC, the renowned, state-owned broadcaster funded by a £139.50-a-year ($226.80) licence fee paid by every Briton who owns a television.

On October 18, Mr Ross, a chat show host who is reported to earn 43,010 of those licence fees (or £6m) every year, appeared as co-host of Mr Brand’s late-night Radio 2 show. They were supposed to interview Andrew Sachs, an actor best known for his role as Manuel, the hapless Spanish waiter in the 1970s TV comedy Fawlty Towers.

As the phone rang, Mr Brand joked to his audience of several hundred thousand mainly young listeners that Mr Sachs was expecting the call, but did not know that he had slept with Georgina Baillie, the actor’s granddaughter.

But the phone was picked up by an answering machine. The two performers, tittering and obviously full of bravado, left several rambling messages, during one of which Mr Ross shouted out in clear Anglo-Saxon terms that Mr Brand had been a sexual partner of Ms Baillie.

The episode appeared to be forgotten. Two listeners complained to the BBC.

But eight days later, the Mail on Sunday newspaper appeared with a huge story about the shock Mr Sachs had felt at the attack on him and his family, and the outrage of the audience. Complaints began to rain on the BBC and by mid-week reached 30,000.

The newspaper’s sister, the Daily Mail, joined the chorus of disapproval and called for the sacking of the men involved. The newspapers have had a strong editorial line against the BBC for many years, denouncing it for political correctness, liberal bias and wasting licence-payers money on overpaid talent like Messrs Ross and Bland.

The BBC was slow to react. Lesley Douglas, the head of Radio 2, her overall boss, Mark Thompson, the director general of the BBC, and his main press officer were all on holiday. Mr Brand had apologised on his October 25 show, but without sincerity.

By Tuesday, with other newspapers joining the hunt, it was clear there would be blood. Even the revelation that Ms Baillie admitted she had indeed slept with Mr Brand and performed for a burlesque group called the Satanic Sluts did not deter the hunt.

More than three-quarters of a million, mostly young, people watched clips of the original radio show on YouTube. Some 10,000 left comments, most of which were supportive of the presenters. It appeared it was only older people who were upset.

Mr Brand quit his show on Wednesday. The following day, after one of the fastest inquisitions in BBC history, Ms Douglas resigned and Mr Ross was suspended for 12 weeks.

But the BBC might well have suffered lasting damage, a trusted adviser to senior executives there told the FT. “We are about to start a painful debate about how to fund non-commercial television in the UK during a recession and the BBC will be at the heart of it. Convincing people that it is worth their money when this row is the freshest thing in people’s minds is going to make a difficult job even harder.”

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