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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: October 31, 2008 @ 12:29 pm

    Compulsory smut replaces compulsory Irish

    Deaglán de Bréadún

    The furore over Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross and their sicko phone calls to venerable actor Andrew Sachs had a very positive side-effect in that it swept the recession aside for a few days as the main news item in the British media. Irish outlets seemed reluctant to take up the story: London is no longer the centre of our cultural universe and I guess that’s a good thing.

    But there are resonances here at home. Podge and Rodge are not cruel in the way that Ross and Brand were but their toilet humour is deeply distasteful to many viewers (others seem to like it.) Gerry Ryan is a very talented broadcaster but has a tendency towards crudity that puts a lot of people off listening to  him (although maybe it attracts others.)

    I don’t think the generation now in its 20s and early 30s has any awareness of how repressive this society was in the past. Back in the 1960s and even later, censorship was a major issue in Irish culture. It wasn’t just legal censorship, whereby books were banned and films either outlawed or cut by the State, there was an overall air of stuffiness which was quite oppressive.

    Some of us railed against it, protested, objected, spoke out. You had to go to the authoritarian Northern Ireland statelet to see films or read magazines that would be considered very innocuous by today’s standards. On my first trip to England as a student to do summer work, I immediately purchased John McGahern’s novel The Dark  which had been banned in Ireland, apparently because of a scene where the young hero excites himself as he gazes on a lingerie ad, in the Irish Independent no less.

    A good deal of emotional and political energy went into opposing the prevailing censorship. Film critic Ciarán Carty, then with the Sunday Indo, now writing for the Tribune, broke many a lance in the struggle.

    It may be hard to believe that, even in the late ’60s, a song called Walk On By was banned from the radio because it referred to an adulterous love affair: “I love you but we’re strangers when we meet” . Another number, Manfred Mann’s Do-Wah Diddy-Diddy was banned because “diddy” was a slang word for breast in this country.

    It’s different nowadays. Anything goes. In the race for ratings, TV channels in different countries are seeking to out-smut one another. Friday night is hide-behind-the-sofa night.

    It wasn’t meant to be this way. The lifting of censorship was meant to facilitate artists and writers in the sensitive depiction of human relations in their work but instead what we have is an endless stream of dirty jokes and near-obscenity aimed at perpetual adolescents. Is this the kind of society Pearse and Connolly gave their lives to create? Is this what Thomas Davis had in mind for us? Was this Henry Grattan’s dream for an independent Ireland?

    What’s curious about it is that the authorities – or at least the controllers of TV and radio stations – are inflicting this on the public. It’s the world turned upside down. In the past the people sought to liberate themselves from authoritarian rule; now it’s the rulers who are seeking to ‘liberate’ the people from their traditional sense of good taste and standards of decency. Compulsory Irish has been replaced by compulsory smut.

    Political debate, on the other hand, is still pretty well restricted. Not so much in an overt way but quietly, almost imperceptibly. The two-party system, whether here or in Britain, dominates the airwaves and, much of the time, the choice of opinions ranges from Tweedledum to Tweedledee although, every so often, a dissident is trotted out to show that the system is really very liberal.

    It’s good that Jonathan Ross is going to suffer some pain in his pocket because of what he did. But the guy is earning so much, it won’t make much difference in the end. As the recession deepens, the massive amounts of money prominent broadcasters people are getting will come more and more into focus. Why should the public be legally obliged to pay a licence fee to subsidise these people?  There’s a question for the Inspector when s/he comes knocking on your door.

    Deaglán de Bréadún

    • paul m says:

      “Is this the kind of society Pearse and Connolly gave their lives to create? Is this what Thomas Davis had in mind for us? Was this Henry Grattan’s dream for an independent Ireland?”

      Yes it is. During their time the Abbey was ransacked for staging The Playboy of the Western World and The Plough and the Stars, Oscar Wilde was continually courting controversy with his works as was Behan (their public celebrity lifestyles may have brought notoriety too).

      These were all latter-day purveyors of so called ‘smut’ that in current climes seems tame to our overstimulated minds. Whereas many agree the puerile and offensive nature of what Messrs Brand and Ross did was well below the belt, it is however poor editorial decision-making that should be in the dock over this (and as it turns out was, with the resignation of the BBC controller).

      There are safeguards in TV, Radio and the press for checking for any potential overtly offensive or rule-breaking material. Many strive to bend these rules or at least briefly cross the line, as courting controversy sells. So if an editor or controller decides to let people push too far, then on their heads be it. They know the nature of the beast they employ, so shouldn’t be surprised if it comes back to bite them. The BBC took the hit because so many have the daggers out for them and their celebrity hosts.

      I think the public are growing tired of the saturation of low-grade humour we are being subjected to in all the media but I think it’s up to people to switch off and not just create a furore for the sake of being seen to be publicly taking the moral high ground. That in itself cheapens morality to the level of the second-rate jokers who caused the offence in the first place.

      We can decide what to censor in our own lives and we often base our decisions on the reputation that a publication or broadcaster has built up with their brand. It’s when those deemed to be above lewd and crude behaviour stoop to that level – that’s when we see such zealous witchhunting as we have in the UK.

      People have a right to object but they also have a right to switch off too. I for one am glad we live in a more liberated Ireland both culturally, politically, morally.

    • NaRocRoc says:

      He said “diddy”. Shut this blog down right now. (Leads angry mob with flaming torches towards I.T. offices)

    • Tom says:

      ‘The lifting of censorship was meant to facilitate artists and writers in the sensitive depiction of human relations in their work but instead what we have is an endless stream of dirty jokes and near-obscenity aimed at perpetual adolescents.’

      That’s the problem with freedom, people are going to be free to use it however they wish. There were only two calls to complain on the evening that the Ross and Brand recording went out. They both apologised personally to Andrew Sachs. It was only when the Daily Mail got hold of it that the ‘moral majority’ got on the bandwagon.

      The range of broadcast and entertainment outlets today means that freedom of expression is everywhere but most people don’t experience it because they are not tuned into a particular channel.

      The vast majority of people who complained didn’t even hear the broadcast but all of a sudden it’s a sign of moral and societal decay because that sort of thing shouldn’t be allowed.

      That’s not to say that unfettered broadcasting of everything should be allowed but the two in question didn’t break any laws. If they offended a vast majority of people with their comments, fair enough, but they have a loyal listenership who don’t feel bound by the same social mores as those who complained. Should the people who found the call funny have their right to listen to what they consider humour taken away because some people got offended over something which didn’t break any laws?

    • Deaglán says:

      Synge, O’Casey, Wilde and Behan are a long way from Jonathan “Woss” and “Wussell Bwand”. My point was that John McGahern’s right to free expression was worth defending, the carry-on by the two boyos was not.

      I subscribe to the principle that, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” But does that include the right to ring up an elderly man to say you “f***ed” his granddaughter? Does free speech include the right to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theatre?

      Saying we have the right to switch off doesn’t really wash. Even if you go into a pub nowadays, there are tellies all over the shop, usually showing a soccer match that’s about as entertaining as watching paint dry. The electronic media are in our face and there is a difference between freedom and licence.

      Speaking of licence of a different kind, there was an ad on TV just now where a TV licence inspector was threatening a woman with a court appearance and a hefty fine. Rather pathetically she was pleading that she and her family could not afford to pay it.

      The licence fee is eminently defensible when you consider RTE’s excellent news and current affairs coverage as well as the orchestras and so on. But when you see the hefty payments made to our home-grown Jonathan Woss counterparts, it is a lot less palatable.

      The pensioners’ revolt and the cross-channel uprising over oppressive indecency on radio and TV are restoring my faith in democracy. (Loved the “diddy” line, NaRocRoc!)

    • Ray D says:

      There are no standards nowadays and no untouchable subjects. Apart from Ross and Brand’s abject silliness and boorishness, it was disconcerting to see that lesser comedian Tommy Tiernan justifying his comedy as it refers to the disabled. He made no apology for his crassness and no explanation either. It was pure justification for his conduct and a resolve to continue his jeering and insulting of soft targets. Then we had Dara O’Briain on Finucane saying that it was up to the editors to edit out material that was unsuitable and that the comedian had no limits on what s/he could say in the name of comedy. It was in effect up to others to censor and set the standards. I cannot agree that both O’Briain and Tiernan should not have standards for themselves. If these are so low then it is up to us as paymasters to decide if those standards are acceptable and worthy of support.

    • Deaglán says:

      In fairness to Tiernan, I understand he did ring Joe Duffy’s “Liveline” to apologise.

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      ‘My point was that John McGahern’s right to free expression was worth defending, the carry-on by the two boyos was not.’ Deaglán

      I’m very uncomfortable about defending freedom of expression for only that content we or anyone seeks to deem worthy or unworthy. I could go into more detail but it easier to let Michael Douglas say it with – words provided by Aaron Sorkin.

      “…advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say “You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can’t just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the “land of the free”. “

    • Ray D says:

      When I referred to Tiernan and his justification, it was his comment on Joe Duffy to which I was referring. This was not an apology. It wasn’t even an explanation as Joe called it. It was a justification pure and simple.

    • Deaglán says:

      I wholeheartedly agree with both yourself and the Michael Douglas character, Dan. But that applies to opinions. In my view, people should have the right to express whatever political opinions they wish; there should be a totally free market in ideas. But if you read the transcript or, better still, check out the YouTube video of Ross and the eerily-voiced Brand, it simply constitutes very bad treatment of an elderly man to get laughs from a few listeners who never completed their toilet-training. What has ringing a senior citizen to say you “f—ed” his grand-daughter got to do with free speech, for heaven’s sake?

    • Tom says:

      ‘In my view, people should have the right to express whatever political opinions they wish; there should be a totally free market in ideas’

      ‘What has ringing a senior citizen to say you “f—ed” his grand-daughter got to do with free speech, for heaven’s sake?’

      So it’s only worthy topics of political conversation and discourse like ‘kick out all immigrants’ or ‘whites are supreme in the world’ or ‘we’d all be better off if gay people caught aids and died a horrible death’ that should be protected by idea of free speech while what Brand and Russell did crosses a line?

    • paul m says:

      In the States, Howard Stern gets his kicks from offending people and pretty much earmarked the “shock jock” title as his own. Owing to restrictions of terrestrial radio in the States (namely limits on swear-words and fines imposed) he moved his show over to a private digital station where he was without limit to the levels his show could sink to. The thing is, he was paid a large sum of money to switch stations and he dragged a considerable audience with him. So there is demand for this type of freedom of speech, even in a country so steeped in litigation and moral doctrine.

      I’m not defending what Ross and Brand did as advocacy for freedom of speech but their shock jock tactics were clearly better suited to a station with less of a lofty reputation than BBC Radio 2. Wrong target audience.

      I think my earlier point of poor editorial decision-making has been overlooked and is the key to this whole freedom of speech affair. The show was pre-recorded, it was passed by the offended party, yet his objection to it being aired was ignored and it went out on the decision of a senior staff member. The BBC aired these inflammatory remarks and I think at the root of it they are to blame as they gave a stage to this behaviour to the detriment of their reputation. If it hadn’t gone to air then the most would have been a smaller-scale scandal story with fewer people on the moral bandwagon.

      Deaglán, I don’t think the RTE licence fee can be defended, as the overbearing amount of tripe that passes for entertainment on their stations is too much for the shoulders of their news and factual programming to carry. Gerry Ryan attempting to shock the nation on daytime radio? And the Tommy Tiernan spectacle was about as concise proof as you can get of our own national broadcaster being guilty of giving a platform to racism masquerading as humour.

      This is the same flagship Late Late Show that sank P. Flynn and had the Dubliners, Pogues, Christy Moore AND Charles Haughey all on stage singing along in tribute to 25 years of Ronnie and the boys.

      Where did it go so wrong? (my guess is when boyzone did their first ‘live performance’ in front of a bemused Gay Byrne)

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hr2ZKhV6eKc

    • Deaglán says:

      Two people ringing an elderly man on his private line at his residence to leave a message that one of them has “f—ed” his grand-daughter and then broadcasting same to millions of radio listeners, does not qualify as an expression of opinion.

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      Deaglán, I’m not at all clear what Andrew Sachs’s age has to do with it, other than about getting a core part of the Daily Mail‘s demographic up in arms. I’ve seen repeated references to it but no actual reason given why it is important. As far as I’m aware he’s in fighting trim so he should be no more or less subject to the Brand/Ross treatment than anyone else. I’m open to hearing why his age is relevant but no one has yet given one that I’ve come across. What next: are we going to go back to suggests that Klaus Barbie or Pinochet should have been left alone cos they were now old men with a subscription to Werther’s Original Monthly?

      It would seem to me that the piece was in poor taste, and the producers should never have broadcast it. Yet no one had noticed the radio piece until the Mail decided to talk it up. And let’s remember Brand/Ross didn’t even talk to Andrew Sachs. The rather dull but important fact here I reckon is that this event has been used to allow the Mail and others in the press have a go at some targets they has been itching to have a go at for ages. And we should be careful about letting the media use rather triviality to undermine things in public life like the Beeb or RTE here.
      RTE does a lot of things I would have a beef with (like not covering the Seanad races properly – the big meanies!) but the core principle that public service broadcasting should be serving the public and popular shouldn’t be missed. Being worthy but unwatched, as Fintan O’Toole appears to think it should be, just is plain wrong. I read his piece about these events with the more local focus on Tiernan and while I find much to agree with I also found he couldn’t resist throwing in some punches at targets who weren’t on the field at all.

    • Deaglán says:

      What Brand and Ross did was inexcusable, regardless of the age of the person they were calling. But the fact that he is 78 makes it even worse. People are by and large less robust physically and pyschologically at that age. A civilised society treats its elders with particular respect – that’s not to say they should be excused of war-crimes or other horrific deeds, on age-grounds.

      Sure, broadcasting outlets need to keep their ratings up but should not descend to the level of Brand and Ross to do that. The fact that the Mail took up the case does not invalidate it. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

    • ede says:

      Dan – I take your point about the Mail “having a go” at targets and jumping on the bandwagon, but these targets set themselves up for a fall. Mr Sachs was their target. Russell and Brand are grand media manipulators and reap tidy financial rewards. Good taste is subjective and particularly so in comedic terms. Whilst not supporting the Mail‘s modus operandi of targetting individuals, the issue arising from this debacle is timely. A morality debate is needed to stimulate awareness of the emergence of shock-jock tendencies in mainstream media. I’m all for freedom of expression but Ross and Brand have a larger audience than most of us to air their “talents” and with this comes a responsibility, even if that responsibility is just to have some courtesy or manners. Of course their comedic sensibilities would not find good manners sexy!

    • Deaglán says:

      Just watched the Tommy Tiernan spot on the Late Late Show. I missed it on the night but there is a slide-show version on the RTE website with a tape of the exchanges.
      It was pretty bad stuff. Do we have to stoop to making fun of the disabled and travellers to get a laugh on a Friday night?
      I could not help thinking of a wonderfully inspiring report by Emma O’Kelly on RTE News recently about two travellers who have made it to university and the challenges and opportunities they face.
      Then you see Tommy Tiernan scraping the bottom of the barrel with a really-distasteful Traveller “joke” which feeds into existing prejudices. Then we had Gerry Ryan pleading with the audience not to laugh …

    • ede says:

      The best comedy and the funniest comedy is neither offensive nor subtly or overtly racist.The reduction of people to cultural stereotypes to try to raise a laugh is lazy, unimaginative and offensive – to everyone! Subverting cultural stereotypes a la Larry David is much cleverer and consequently funnier. Ross, Brand and Tiernan all have comedic talents and this makes the recent broadcasts (which are not even funny) all the more unforgiveable.

    • ede says:

      The taxpayer cannot decide programme content or influence editorial decisions on TV output, this is in the hands of TV programmers and commissioning directors. Viewer reaction should not be ignored as a means of identifying the limits of crass TV we are served up. If the Ross/Brand/Tiernan debacle stimulates debate and revives comedy from the lows it is sinking to, then Mr Sachs will be a comedic treasure far beyond the walls of Fawlty Towers.

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      Deaglán, with regard to comedy on the Late Late we’ve been here before with the Dave McSavage, so bad it couldn’t be good, appearance last year.

      Sadly, Tiernan is an excellent talent who seems to be making a shockingly poor choice of subject-matter in more recent times.

      I think suspension without pay for Ross and Brand for 3 months would have been about right with the person/people who made the editorial choice to broadcast it being suspended for 12 months. Had the Beeb done that straight off, the rest of the furore might not have happened, but then again it might simply have called attention to something most had missed. I’m wary of raising this to the level of a morality debate.

    • Deaglán says:

      The problem seems to be that RTE must maintain its ratings and has to compete with cross-channel stations whose standards are pretty low.

    • BetterWorld Now says:

      Whatever the merits of broadcasting abusive telephone messages, it has the advantage of being a cheap way to make a radio programme. And in the emerging broadcast paradigm, that is all that counts. The days of public sector broadcasting in Europe are numbered and the principles of the new broadcast architecture currently being touted around the corridors of Brussels are precisely the influences which have led the BBC to employ populists like Woss and Bwand.

      Whilst the BBC is aware of the bandwagon coming down the Euro-tracks and are preparing for it by employing such “talent”, RTE is still hoping that this is a train that will be derailed before it gets to our shores. It is a vain hope.

      The European neo-liberal project, temporarily upset by the Irish “no” vote, cannot put a market value on public sector broadcasting so it will abolish it in the interests of eliminating unfair competition for commercial broadcasters. In that world, Ross and Brand are very much the future. You are right Deaglán, it has nothing to do with free speech, but protection of free speech will be used to sell it to an unsuspecting public brainwashed by free-market idolatry.

      There is nothing that any of us can do to preserve the best parts of the public media we cherish. The political DNA of the EU is anti-public sector, worthy and valued or otherwise. A primary function of the EU is to transfer all public services (with the exception of policing and national security) to the private sector where they can be become a vehicle for profit generation in the private sector.

      It is an echo of the Chicago School economic model, now discredited, which brought us such notable failures as the privatisation of water in Bolivia and of oil in Venezuela, both of which had significant political repercussions. It is also the reason why electricity prices in Ireland are 30% higher in real terms than they need to be in an effort to make our puny electricity generation sector attractive to future private investors (remember Eircom anyone?) Such outdated economic models survive in Euroland only because the wheels of EU bureaucracy move so slowly that last century’s received wisdom remains relevant only in Europe where the goo of political inertia preserves an economic orthodoxy which is well past its sell-by date.

      Public service broadcasting will be sacrificed on the altar of free-market economics, regardless of the consequences for the health of our political system. Ross and Brand are merely symptoms of a much more dangerous disease infecting the European body politic.

      They are also, it must be said, a very useful diversion for the right-wing press from the gathering economic crisis it contributed to creating.

    • Deaglán says:

      It’s difficult to see the current public-service broadcasting model surviving in the longer term, at least not in its present form. We may end up with an American-style system where special-interest stations rely to a significant extent on voluntary subscriptions or pledges of money. In the interim, one could envisage competing organisations getting a serious share of the licence fee currently devoted almost exclusively to one station. I wouldn’t lay the blame at Europe’s door in the first instance: there are global factors at play. Episodes like the Brand-Ross business and the Tommy Tiernan “jokes” about travellers and people with disabilities unfortunately detract from the standing of public-service stations which still produce much that is very worthwhile.

    • John says:

      Comedy? Free Speech? Please don’t use these labels to excuse bullying. Pure and simple. Regardless of who and what age a person is, what was carried out was bullying and calculated humiliation. The irony of the situation is that the same “liberals” who have no problem with the behaviour of Ross and company cry foul when even a passing remark is made about Obama.


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