Stephen Glover is fast becoming a favourite of this blog, as he perpetually confuses concepts which should be obviously distinct. Today he’s writing on the Sachs Scandal, and starts off thinking about culture
“The suspension of the foul-mouthed Jonathan Ross and the forced resignation of his equally disagreeable sidekick Russell Brand marked an extraordinary historic cultural victory.”
but very quickly manages to turn this into a discussion of morality
“There is a fissure in him [BBC Director General Mark Thompson] that permits this moral relativism”
having first taken a detour into the purpose of the BBC
“Although the BBC is protected from commercial realities, it increasingly conducts itself as though these are the only realities that matter.”
and an attack on the Left
“Whereas some on the Left embrace Brand for his nihilism and for what they regard as his welcome flouting of bourgeois values”
The confounding of culture with morality is, very simply, wrong. Acts are subject to normativity (they can be right or wrong), but things are not (they are only a matter of taste). If we take the cultural artifact of architecture as an example, you can have an ugly building, but you can’t have an evil one. The closest you can come is a building used for immoral purposes, like a death camp (the purpose is immoral, but the building is still morally neutral). In the same way, while we can say a word that is rude, or inappropriate, or vulgar, we cannot say one that is ‘wrong’. We can ascribe a sense or a connotation, in addition to a meaning, but this is not the same as a moral valence.
For this reason, the relativity Mark Thompson holds to is cultural, not moral. This is a much more defensible position: while to say something is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ is to make a statement about the universal, to say something is ‘fine’ or ‘vulgar’ is merely to say that you approve or disapprove of it. In this way, Glover finds Brand and Ross’ brand of comedy distasteful in exactly the same way that some people find ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ distasteful.
Where Glover merges the moral and the cultural is in the implicit assertion that a speech act is an act in the normal sense of the word – that it has something more than just assertoric force (that is does something, rather than just says something). A parallel is the idea that pornography degrades women by reducing them to objects. The ‘thing’ [pornography] is changing the state of things [degrading women] in the same way that the the thing [the speech act] is [“[it] does not raise people up but often pushes them down”]. Historically, this was very much the BBC’s position; it is interesting to compare Glover’s views with those of the Green Book, the corporation’s post-war guidelines on broadcasting standards:
“The Corporation must have its own standards moulded in the light of its own circumstances. The influence that it can exert upon its listeners is immense and the responsibility for a high standard of taste correspondingly heavy. Its aim is for its programmes to entertain without giving reasonable offence to any part of its diversified audience. It must therefore keep its programmes free from vulgarity, political bias, and matter in questionable taste.”
Conceptually, the Book and Glover fail, because a speech act only reflects the world. To suggest that words, alone or in combination, ‘degrade’ or ‘coarsen’ is to say little more than that you believe that through the circulation of those words ideas we disapprove of gain currency. The words themselves express the view, but they are not the view themselves – the best they can do is persuade towards new ideas or agree with those already held. This is especially the case with comedy, which works on shared assumptions¹. To put it simply, Radio 2 will be listened to by the sort of people who listen to Radio 2. This is why Brand and Ross only got two complaints while the show was on air, and why it was passed for broadcast. The move “to the gutter” reflects the fact that that’s where the audience is already.
This isn’t so much bowing to competitive pressure as to a change in the times. The ‘old BBC’ values set out in the Green Book come from a time when there was no competition at all – the BBC had to cover as many bases as possible. That is no longer the case. If the BBC doesn’t cater to an audience, they will go elsewhere². The modern expression of the all-encompassing public service ethos is to have differentiated cultural outlets. Again, Glover wasn’t offended when the show was broadcast because he hadn’t been listening to it.
The one thing that would upset this argument is if Brand and Ross had actually done anything morally wrong. They didn’t. They said things which were true. They did so in a vulgar manner, but, again, the importance of that is subject to taste. It is interesting, for example, to read the Mail’s revelations that “Russell Brand was obsessed by my Fawlty Towers grandfather in bed“. Vulgarity clearly changes by the day. The worst crime you can pin at their door is breaking an expected bond of trust by revealing information which the young lady in question might not have wanted revealed. This, though, unless breaking an explicit promise, is merely ungentlemanly. Questionable behaviour, not wrong³.
“Behav[ing] in an inexcusable way” captures this quite nicely. The two behaved poorly, but without doing anything wrong. ‘Inexcusable’ is the sort of word you use to describe someone who gets drunk at a dinner party and says what you’re all thinking about the hostess’s hair-do. They could have been less crass. But that is the extent of their crime. While they may have offended ‘decency’, they haven’t offended morality. For this reason, Mr Thompson would be foolish to follow the prescription that:
“If Mr Thompson does not have the courage to act on his moral convictions, he will be wise to listen to the outrage of those who do.”
He should have the wisdom to be able to tell the difference between the immoral and the questionable, and courage to tell those that can’t where to get off.
¹ Reading through the transcript is very interesting, because the comedy works not so much on a ‘subversion’ of ‘bourgeouis values’ but through their acceptance. The audience has to understand that it is inappropriate to mention liasons with someone’s granddaughter for the joke to work – Ross blurts it out, thus embarrassing Brand whose attempts to save the situation only make it worse, culminating in a ludicrous and innappropriate song. Structurally, this is exactly the same as Basil Fawlty’s attempts to avoid conflict with the Germans. Just as Fawlty wasn’t undermining the bourgouis value of not blaming World War Two on random tourists, this does not undermine the taboo on discussing your sexual exploits with their relatives.
² With a TV license being compulsory for TV owners, this would disenfrachise a large proportion of the audience.
³ We might wonder about offence, but, again, words have no valence, they merely reflect the views of the speaker. You can disagree with them, but to take it personally is ridiculous. The problem with offence lies with the person taking it, not the person giving it.