Wednesday 29 October 2008

Civility is the New Punk

I've been puzzling over my reaction to the Ross/Brand controversy. Like a lot of people I feel pretty repulsed by what Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand did to Andrew Sachs and his granddaughter. But I've felt the need to investigate why I feel this way. My thoughts on this have been mingling with those on a recent article in Renewal by Adam Lent of the TUC in which he calls for a new 'Civility Alliance'.

As an ageing (ex-)punk (well, wannabe punk - I had some of the records, but not the clothes) I can't claim that I find things objectionable just because someone - even if a lot of people - find them 'offensive'. Indeed, offensiveness seems often to go along with justifiable - and justifiably vehement - criticism of the oppressive, pompous, superstitious, imperial and generally reactionary. At its best, punk had this kind of targeted offensiveness.

But the Ross/Brand antics have a very different flavour. This wasn't the act of subversives assaulting complacency in the face of the powers that be. It was two very powerful media personalities using their power to play rather cruel jokes on those with much less power. They were celebrating their power, rather like a playground bully.

Now I don't want to get sanctimonious about this. Sadistic power playing is endemic in the modern media. A whole host of shows make use of and appeal to the same sentiments. It is, in a sense, unfair to single out Ross/Brand for criticism because their pranks were representative of so much that now passes for 'entertainment' - which may be why noone at the BBC stopped the program before it went out.

But this also tells us not to fall for the idea that Ross/Brand are wild, taboo-breaking rebels. Their pranks reflect a spirit of dull, unimaginative conformism to the mores of modern entertainment - mores which are, in turn, a reflection of the wider mores of our (post-Thatcher, neo-liberal) society.

In this social and cultural context, it is in fact civility which becomes subversive. Think about how your actions and words might affect other people's feelings. Think about how your demands affect possibilities for others. Adjust what you do and say accordingly. These things sound banal, but are in fact deeply challenging when we seek to follow them consistently. (I certainly don't.) And people are often shocked when you insist that we try to follow these norms consistently (just look at the Fabian 'Chavgate' controversy over the summer). Taking the route of civility - of solidarity - is so at odds with how we actually live so much of the time that people are sometimes offended by the demand that they be civil.

Civility, it would seem, is the new punk.


Sunder Katwala said...


Good thought provoking post. Its good to think that it isn't just about getting older!

Like you, I am instinctively liberal against allowing 'offence' to determine what should be allowed publicly. Offence might be deeply held, without being a legitimate reason to prevent artistic impression. And offence might be a good, progressive thing.

What your civility point captures is that what offends about this particular sketch is more the behaviour itself towards the victim than the fact that it was broadcast.

JEMills said...

This morning’s papers show that Brand has to consider his Career Opportunities now that everyone in the media wants to Beat On The Brat. The Daily Mail is screaming Anarchy In The UK at a moment for the BBC that is being described as Armageddon Time with negotiation over the licence fee looming. The result that has come from this mini English Civil War has been a Clampdown at the BBC where producers are being made to take Complete Control after being accused of being Pretty Vacant by letting the programme go out to air. With 10,000 complaints on the day it was broadcast before God Save The Queen was played it was bound to lead to a cull. Ross, who has a large young audience, may not have to leave If The Kids Are United but he maybe thinking “Should I Stay or Should I Go” and decide to jump ship to Capital Radio. But what this affair really shows is the gap between what is classed as offence by young and old. The listeners of Radio 1 probably would not careless for an incident that has Radio 4 listeners in uproar. But Radio 2 is where young meets old and where good taste is age related. It just goes to prove that with cutting edge radio broadcasting you can’t have it Any Way You Want It.

Robert Alcock said...

If there is an upside to this tawdry affair it is that it seems to have jolted the great British public into disgust not so much at these guys' antics but their paypackets. Particularly, of course, in the case of Ross - a man who boasted he was worth "1000 BBC journalists". I challenge anyone to cogently defend his £16m contract - and am unaware that any BBC exec has every tried to.

While there will always be a market for talent - in broadcasting and elsewhere - here we see yet another
case of market failure.