Political Promise

The Political Effects of Jonathan Ross’ BBC Departure is greater than its Cultural Impact

In Charlie Edwards on January 9, 2010 at 7:49 pm

Jonathan Ross has recently embarked on the production of his 18th series of his primetime chat-show Friday Night with Jonathan Ross. His contract, which runs out in June, has reportedly earned him £18 million over the past four years, and will not be renewed by the Beeb when it runs out. So no more Wossy on our screens. As well as his celeb-fest on a Friday night, he also presents a daytime Radio 2 show and the Film… series, where he offers his critique on the latest film releases. His creative, sharp and flirty style won him critical acclaim, and as of this summer, will discontinue all of his BBC roles.

Eyebrows will be raised as to whether he jumped or was pushed, and I think the BBC may have been a little more forceful than the airy-fairy ‘thought-leaves’ that are coming out of White City. The BBC have an obligation to offer the taxpayer value for money. Jonathan Ross onced joked at the National Comedy Awards, after announcements that the BBC was to axe 2,500 jobs, that he was ‘worth 1,000 journalists’. 

Jonathan Ross on his primetime BBC chat-show

On the BBC website, a debate entitled ‘Will you be sad to see Ross go?’ amassed a whopping 6,355 responses, a tiny proportion of his 5 million-strong audience on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross . The cultural impact on his departure will initially cause a fuss (he fills 80 prime evening slots a year) but Britain is hardly suffering from a lack of willing and able presenters and personalities. He was a character, and I’m sure his next move will be to conquer America.   

In this country, he will inevitably always be remembered for the Andrew Sachs scandal, where  he and fellow presenter Russell Brand sexually harrassed the veteran actor’s grand-daughter over the phone in a recording of a Radio Two broadcast. The furore surrounding that event bruised his ego: it certainly didn’t leave any scars. The quality of BBC output will not suffer.

Given the Government’s talk of ‘cutting the budget deficit’, the BBC have decided to lead the way in cutting spending. The significance is greater than the future savings, it is the willingness and courage to scrap a primetime heavyweight. Similarly, in order to cut public debt, many of Labour’s heavyweight policies may have to be scrapped. Unnecessary, expensive and not wholly popular ideas such as ID cards could well be the Jonathan Ross-shaped sacrifice the Labour budget needs to work out – to prove to the British people that the economy will be stimulated by a future government. Faith in economic management is where this election will be won and lost. Gordon Brown will have to concede the Tory are not the ‘party of cuts’ and show how he is going to manage the deficit. Today. Not to ‘stimulate future growth’. How will the debt be paid off today? The BBC are one of hundreds of public bodies where implementing cuts can save more money than many people think. And that is exactly what they are doing.

The BBC  commit to cut costs by 3% a year. Between now and 2013, they hope to save £1.9 billion. A survey conducted in November from Policy Exchange, a centre-right think-tank, revealed that two thirds of voters support a decrease in BBC budgets. This was revealed in an article in the Daily Express: ‘Voters Call to Slash Bloated BBC Budget’. A prospective Government must follow suit in order to cut their own budget deficit. John Maynard Keynes’ economic theory of spending your way out of a recession may ease macroeconomic problems now, but as Phillip Hammond, the Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary announced last week – the Government debt is partly due to the recession, but mainly a structural debt. Spend spend spend can only work if you’ve saved saved saved when times were less harsh.

The BBC has been ridden with controversy over the legitimacy of the BBC license fee,  many believe that its legal monopoly (you go to prison if you do not pay your TV license) protects BBC funding immorally. Jonathan Ross’ extravagant pay package seems even worse once the numbers have been crunched:

75p of your license has gone to Jonathan Ross over the past four years. 0.5% of your license fee this year will have funded Jonathan Ross. 0.5% of Britain’s GDP is spent on the entire expenditure on health in the whole of Northern Ireland. When put in that perspective, it does not seem like the ‘value for money’ we are promised.

This graph shows the ways a household's monthly license fee is spent within the BBC.

The imposition of a television license fee is immoral: irrelevant of how much BBC television you consume, whether half an hour a week or sixteen hours a day  . Some people’s £142.50 is much more value for money than those who cannot afford the time to enjoy as much television, or for those who simply prefer the output from other broadcasters.

The writer Jonathan Miller described the situation in a debate in 2007: “You cannot watch New Delhi TV news without paying the BBC. It’s as if you had to subscribe to the Guardian to be allowed to read The Telegraph.”

The license fee is a guaranteed source of income, which ringfences the British broadcaster from unforeseen economic circumstances. The drying-up of advertising revenue streams is another argument for the safeguarding of the BBC. BBC’s largest competitor, ITV, have been badly affected by the economic recession (loss of ad revenue combined with the massive loss the company made on its acquisition of Friends Reunited, the doomed social networking site) and has since had to scale back on the production of many programmes. The Bill has been shortened to one episode a week, and there has been an uptake in storylines featuring the younger (and cheaper) cast members of Coronation Street. ITV has one man to thank for not going into administration: Simon Cowell.

Reality television has taken a grip on our screens, and the British public do not want it to let go just yet. Channel Four’s Big Brother will ultimately be remembered as one of the programmes of the Noughties. Whether it is looking good naked, dieting, home improvements or selling your uncle’s chase silver rasor blades – there has been a TV programme for it . Channels Four and Five’s reality documentaries created a much finer line between science fiction, freak shows and scientific anomalies. ITV created the four most succesful (aside from BB) reality offerings in Hell’s Kitchen, X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent and I’m A Celebrity… The BBC has not been able to keep up in this sought-after category of public broadcasting. There is a perverse joy to be taken from watching other’s misgivings, the British people like television which can be related to.

Sitting on a sofa interviewing trumped-up Hollywood celebrities can not be easily related to.

In our age of austerity, budgets need to be cut. The BBC is taking an active role in leading the way. The decision to not renew Jonathan Ross’ contract may not have a cultural impact. But if other public bodies follow suit – it will have a political impact.

Charlie Edwards


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