Ross and BrandThere is so much I have to say about this “crisis” at the BBC over the on-air prank calls aired by Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand. The uproar seems to me so self-serving and utterly ridiculous that it’s almost aimless. And it shows that the BBC’s continuing to sit on the fence between public service broadcaster and entertainer is a very bad idea, and it’s supporting my longtime argument against the arrangement. This reaction would never be happening in America, proving wrong some fundamental British assumptions about American moral standards.

First. This debate is ridiculous. I couldn’t believe it when I saw over three-thousand news articles about some radio prank calls. A “crisis” at the BBC over an on-air PRANK CALL? Are all these people insane? Or just severely lacking in a sense of humor? This stuff is tame in comparison to what I listen to, and what that proves is that this is all a matter of perspective. These are arbitrary standards. What’s funny for the goose may be offensive for the gander. People with a sensitive sensibility, a somber outlook, a propensity to complain about everything or a hypersensitivity to what they hear don’t need to listen to radio shows like mine, or like Howard Stern’s, or like Russell Brand’s. People who don’t like Ross or Brand, or the sense of humor on the show, should choose another radio station when they come on the air.

Well, you might say, we normally enjoy the show, but this was insulting to poor Andrew Sachs who was the victim of the calls. Of course it was insulting; it was a prank call! Isn’t Palin humor insulting to Sarah Palin? Nobody seems to mind engaging in that. Yes, you say, but poor Andrew Sachs was not a willing participant in this humor and it was an uninvited insult, which isn’t right. Okay, but do we need to get so upset and fire everybody? Let me tell you what I would do about this. If people called complaining about a bit I did, I’d take the calls on-air as they came in and talk it over, and I’d probably end up feeling bad enough to call and get the guy on the air to apologize to him publicly. Listeners would be engaged in hearing that process. These are real moments and there isn’t any much of it we can’t let the listeners in on. We don’t have to present this fake and perfect front for the audience, until we later issue these fake and perfect ‘apologies’. We’re human, we make decisions in the name of entertainment, we err. And it’s all on-air.

But not at the BBC, where nothing is approached with a sense of humor. Brand resigns. Ross is under fire. Now we have programmers resigning! Was the prank call really that consequential? What is this, the government? And that’s the precise matter that brings me to my second point.

The reason the BBC-listening public feel entitled to complain in this pathetic and embarrassing manner is that they are being forced to pay for the BBC – under threat of jail if necessary – and thus they feel they own it. So an injunction recommending they switch stations when they don’t like what they hear falls on deaf ears (deaf until they hear something that offends them), because the BBC is THEIR broacaster and it should be accurately representing THEM at all times. The BBC is not competing for ratings in a free market of broadcasters; it’s demanding funds from TV-watching citizens whether they want to pay it or not, and using it to create soaps and game shows and hack radio. No wonder they’re frustrated.

The BBC wishes to occupy this strange place between public service broadcasting (which they want to do sometimes) and entertainment (which they want to do most of the time). Yet they want public money to do both of those things, all of the time. That doesn’t work. As I’ve argued fervently many times in the past, the BBC cannot continue to demand public funds for what it does. It should be competing like anybody else, commercially, or, if there are still zealots who claim people really want to pay for the BBC directly, then it should be converted to voluntary subscription so they have a chance to prove it.

Who fired Brand and pressured the programmer to resign? The bloody BBC Trust, that’s who. They’re a committee of lily-livered, public sector morons who wouldn’t know comedy if they had a reverse lobotomy. It’s the same bunch of quangos who – in the wake of this non-incident – are now calling for stricter editorial controls on BBC radio. For the layperson, that means they now plan to bore you until you slit your wrists or turn to a commercial radio station, whichever comes first. Isn’t that a surprise?

Finally, it’s amusing how many British people think Americans are so much more uptight and anxious than them. As a radio broadcaster myself, I give my kudos to Stern. His influence is wide, his guest list is A-list, his interviews unique and second to none other (and I really mean that), his creativity exceptional and the devotion he has from his listening audience is extensive. Yet his show of the past 30 years could never have been aired in Britain at any point in its existence; it would have been easily too ‘offensive’ for the solemn British audience. (And that was before he moved to Sirius satellite radio, which allows his show to air every day uncensored.) American audiences understand that they have a choice in what to listen to, and those who don’t like Stern don’t listen to Stern. (Of course, many of them do like Stern, which explains his rise to the top of his profession.) I can tell you that Howard making exactly the same prank calls as Ross and Brand would produce approximately ZERO news reports or official complaints: not a single one. That’s a mature audience with a sense of humor, and it’s an American one.

As for Russell Brand, he’s pretty funny, generally. In my opinion, the Andrew Sachs calls weren’t too funny – they weren’t offensive, just not really funny – and Brand was quite irritating to listen to. But he’s a rising star, which means people like him, and those who don’t should simply tune out (while protesting their BBC license fee by refusing to pay it).

Any sensible British broadcasting company worth its salt should now hire Brand and his entire production team, put his show on the schedule opposite whatever the BBC decides to put on Radio Two and make a ton of money from it. And they should make the ‘outrageous celebrity prank call’ segment a permanent, daily addition to the show.