Editorial control over offensive
27. Since we held our session with the BBC on
its annual report, the BBC has been at the centre of a major controversy
which has raised questions relating to its editorial control over
offensive content. On 18 October 2008, BBC Radio 2 broadcast a
pre-recorded episode of The Russell Brand Show, on which
Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross left lewd messages on the voicemail
of actor Andrew Sachs. In the aftermath of this incident, Russell
Brand resigned from his BBC employment, Jonathan Ross was suspended
without pay for three months, and the BBC Trust called the broadcast
a "deplorable intrusion [
] without editorial justification".
The Trust has recommended tougher penalties for staff who do not
comply with editorial guidelines, and tighter controls on shows
made by companies owned by their performers.
28. Shortly before the Trust made this statement,
we held a further oral evidence session with the BBC's Director
General, Mark Thompson, and the Chairman of the Trust, Sir Michael
Lyons. The session had initially been arranged to question the
Executive and Trust on the operations of the BBC's commercial
arm, BBC Worldwide. In light of the unfolding public controversy,
we took the opportunity to question the BBC on this broadcast.
29. Sir Michael Lyons stressed that the "material
was unacceptable, should never have been broadcast and should
never have been recorded".
The broadcast was, according to the Director General of the BBC,
"a very serious editorial lapse".
He went on to say that it constituted both an invasion of privacy
and a lapse of a duty of care to Andrew Sachs and his granddaughter.
He admitted that "quite senior people with a specific responsibility
for editorial standards and compliance made errors of judgement
in relation to this programme".
30. Although the programme was broadcast on 18
October, it was not until the publication of an article relating
to it appeared in The Mail on Sunday on 26 October that
it became a major national news story. Indeed, Sir Michael said
that it was not until the publication of this article that the
Trust and senior management of the BBC had any idea that the incident
had taken place.
The Trust and the Executive issued apologies the next day27
Octoberbut this meant that nine days had passed since the
show had been broadcast. The Trust and the Executive have rejected
allegations that they were slow in responding to the incident,
with the Chairman of the Trust claiming that "there was no
lack of speed following the publication, but much to account for
in the preceding week".
31. The broadcast of The Russell Brand
Show on 18 October was a serious editorial lapse which
exposed major failings in the BBC's system of editorial control.
These failings must be addressed and such a lapse must not be
repeated. The broadcast of the show was bad enough, but the BBC's
failure to respond quickly exacerbated the situation. It seems
extraordinary that BBC senior management were not aware of the
broadcast until some eight days after it went on air. We find
it inexplicable that an apology was not issued until 27 October.
Even then, the BBC failed to check the wording of its apology
with the main victim of the broadcast, Andrew Sachs.
32. Radio 2 announced on 13 November that Jonathan
Ross would return from his suspension, and be back on air from
24 January 2009. This announcement was made prior to the Trust's
final consideration on 21 November of the BBC's report on the
matter. Despite this announcement, the Chairman of the Trust insisted
on 18 November that "there is nothing that is ruled out from
the final deliberations of the BBC Trust".
He accepted that it would have been more appropriate for Radio
2 to have delayed its announcement until after the Trust's conclusions
had been published.
However, later the same day, the Trust issued a statement indicating
that it did not expect to conclude that any further sanction against
Jonathan Ross should be imposed. In doing so, it appeared to pre-empt
its own consideration and to contradict the statement made by
the Trust Chairman just a few hours previously. When the Trust
did issue its ruling on 21 November, it confirmed that it did
not seek to alter Ross' suspension, and his return date remained
33. The decision by the BBC to announce on
Radio 2 that Jonathan Ross would be back on air immediately after
his three month suspension, despite the fact that the Trust had
yet to approve the BBC's action, was premature and wholly inappropriate.
It suggests to us an arrogance on the part of the BBC in apparently
assuming that the Trust would not seek to alter the BBC's ruling.
As the Chairman of the Trust himself accepted, the announcement
should not have been made until after the Trust had approved the
action. We also find it bizarre that the Trust should then issue
its own statement suggesting that Jonathan Ross would face no
further sanction ahead of its own meeting to consider the matter.
This was the last in a series of major errors of judgement from
the BBC relating to this matter, which started with the broadcast
itself and was compounded by the unacceptable delay in acknowledging
its inappropriateness and issuing apologies. We trust that all
concerned will learn the appropriate lessons and that the Trust
Chairman's declared intention to make sure that there is no recurrence