Decency Dying a Painful Death in British Culture

Those outside the United Kingdom will be blissfully unaware of a news story that knocked everything else off the front pages of British newspapers these past few weeks: two of the BBC's biggest stars lost their jobs after engaging in obscene telephone calls to the actor Andrew Sachs, known to the world as "Manuel" in the legendary comedy series Fawlty Towers.

As the presidential election of 2008 writes itself into the history books, Americans may assert, "We have Howard Stern, so who cares about a pair of dirty-minded performers fired over in gentle Blighty?"

The reason why this story is significant in the wake of the McCain-Obama campaign is that decency and moral structure are the cement of civilized society, and these issues were pilloried this autumn by the anti-Palin media. Nowhere was Sarah Palin more parodied and vilified than in the overseas press. In Britain, where church attendance is at an all-time low, where teen pregnancies and knife crime are breaking all records and alcoholism in children is shocking even the most hardened emergency room physicians, a public discourse on restoring "old-fashioned values" is regarded as a precursor to fascism or evangelical hysteria.

But let us get back to Auntie Beeb: in late October Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross, two popular British television and radio personalities, devised a skit for BBC Radio 2 in which they would record a series of messages on the answering machine of the aforementioned actor Andrew Sachs, who had failed to appear on their show. (Americans will remember Brand as the lewd and disrespectful host of the MTV Awards in September, who memorably referred to President Bush as a "cowboy retard.")

In the process of taunting Sachs by ansafone, the two men engaged with repulsive detail in describing Brand's sexual encounter with the granddaughter of 78-year-old Sachs. The program was pre-recorded and a wise editor clipped out an indescribably execrable section about Brand and Ross masturbating the actor, but the portions of the program that did transmit on the nation's airwaves constituted veritable garbage.

Of course, Sachs complained to the corporation but very few listeners did the same until the Daily Mail newspaper expressed its outrage and various BBC heavyweights, including the news anchorman Sir John Tusa, registered their indignation. Soon thousands of decent British folk contacted the BBC in fury. The switchboard was permanently engaged for three days. By the first weekend in November 37,000 listeners had registered their anger. The controller of Radio 2 resigned and as this article goes to press there is talk of a further high-level departure at the British Broadcasting Corporation. All of Russell Brand's programs have been canceled, although somehow a disgusting show about people having sex with their pets did get the go-ahead for transmission in prime time in the week of the crisis. I watched this program in jaw-dropping disbelief. It must be remembered that the BBC is funded by a compulsory tax on every household. Menacing vans patrol little Britain looking for folks who have not paid their license fee. If ever there was a case for dismantling an act of big government, this is it.

Jonathan Ross was also taken off the air. To measure the importance of this national crisis, there was further popular uproar when it was revealed that he is paid £6 million ($11 million) a year. His weekly talk show is on a par with Conan O'Brien or Stephen Colbert in popularity, but there the similarity ends. The difference between American hosts and Ross is that they maintain good taste and do not dwell on sex; Ross infamously taunted Conservative leader David Cameron about masturbating to images of Lady Thatcher on one segment. In his new book, Why Do I Say These Things?, Ross talks of sex with a vacuum cleaner and about sexually arousing disabled men.