Last weekend, a lavish, even a humiliating, apology was broadcast by the BBC. It concerned two of its most prominent star comedian-presenters, Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross – the latter being by far the best-paid man on British television, on a contract worth £18m.
Three weeks earlier, on a Saturday night radio show presented by Brand, the two had phoned the veteran comedy actor Andrew Sachs, and recorded on his answerphone a dialogue between the two of them in which Brand boasted of going to bed with Sachs’ granddaughter, Georgina Baillie, and suggested he (Sachs) might commit suicide. The show was recorded, which means at least one producer listened to it and passed it for transmission. Though the programme attracted only two complaints immediately after it went out, a Sunday newspaper publicised it the following week, and a furore erupted.
Hence the apology. It said that “the conversation was grossly offensive and an unacceptable intrusion into the private lives of Mr Sachs and Ms Baillie. It was a serious breach of editorial standards, and should never have been recorded or broadcast.” For a corporation as proud and powerful as the BBC, this was quite an abasement.
Scandals – and, with these, charges that standards are being lowered – are not just covered by television, they are television: an ironic tribute to the central role the medium plays in lives. Last summer, the Netherlands’ BNN Channel broadcast a programme in which a woman offered to donate a kidney to the respondent who gave the best reason why he or she should have it – a show that had the prime minister, Jan Peter Balkenende, complain in parliament that it would sully the country’s name (the channel later revealed that the donor was an actress and said it was legitimate to dramatise the need for kidneys). In early summer of this year, a scandal convulsed French television when Laurence Ferrari, a former girlfriend of President Sarkozy, replaced Patrick Poivre d’Arvor as a channel’s main presenter. The conclusion drawn by many was that she was there at the president’s bidding. In October, a report by the Open Society Institute on Italian television sharply criticised the domination of all main channels by the prime minister Silvio Berlusconi – and the dumbing-down of the airwaves this has allegedly meant.
A live protest has been aired in Germany. It came last month and it was vivid. When Marcel Reich-Ranicki (on the right of the picture, with Thomas Gottschalk), Germany’s most famous literary critic, was given the 2008 television lifetime achievement award – for a long-running and sparky books programme he stopped presenting seven years ago – he bit, hard, the hand that had just fed him. “I do not accept this prize,” he said. “I do not belong to the people who have, perhaps very rightly, been honoured today. If the award were a sum of money, I would have to give it back.
“Sitting here for several hours has been an ordeal,” he continued, as the seemingly permanent smile on the moderator’s face evaporated, because of “all the nonsense we had to endure”. Brainless nonsense was, he said, the staple diet of German television.
It did spark a debate – and claimed victims. Blood was spilt and heads rolled. Emboldened by Reich-Ranicki’s wrathful monologue, Elke Heidenreich, the frustrated lead literary critic for the public-sector ZDF network, said she was “ashamed” of working for her employer and called the awards ceremony “brainless shit”. She was promptly fired.
ZDF broadcast a debate on the quality of television a week after the ceremony as a conciliatory gesture, but it was only half an hour, and was inconclusive. Instead, it underlined what many see as a worrying rift between Germany’s intellectual elite and the creators of its popular culture, itself a symptom of the apparent economic and political polarisation that has been causing alarm in that most egalitarian of countries.
But “nonsense” has its defenders. In Germany, that role fell to Thomas Gottschalk, undisputed champion of light entertainment. He was the moderator of this year’s television awards and Reich-Ranicki’s discussion partner at the follow-up ZDF debate. But he is mainly known as the host of Wetten, dass? a 20-year-old show where participants challenge each other to perform idiotic stunts for money, such as pulling a train engine with bare hands or fitting 36 people in a Volkswagen Beetle.
With a fuzzy shoulder-length blond mane that was last in fashion in the early 1980s and a penchant for purple three-piece suits, Gottschalk, who ended up immersed in a bathtub of mustard in a recent show, is, for the cultured elite, shorthand for bad taste. “I’ve been hearing the same things for 20 years,” he told the Spiegel news weekly after his discussion with Reich-Ranicki. “What bothers me is the general disapproval of those who think themselves too intelligent for this. They should read their Schopenhauer and leave me in peace.”
Yet even Gottschalk has admitted that those on Reich-Ranicki’s side have at least half a point. Asked about television’s latest discoveries – talent contests, reality shows on breast augmentations or cruel expositions of the proletariat’s financial ineptitudes – he concedes: “Some of the stuff that sells as entertainment today would have got you a suspended prison term just 10 years ago.”
And has the British row, and the abjectness it occasioned, banned bad taste from the airwaves? Not obviously: just as it died down last week, another highly paid BBC presenter, Jeremy Clarkson, made a joke about lorry drivers murdering prostitutes – taken as a reference to a lorry driver named Steve Wright, from Ipswich, who earlier this year was convicted of murdering five prostitutes. The BBC took 1,950 complaints (though there have been 675 calls of support), and an MP has called for Clarkson to be sacked.
This article is part of a series on TV around the world. For earlier pieces, visit www.ft.com/arts/tv