When the show Big Brother first aired on British telly in 1997, it was supposed to observe people going simply going about their business, albeit within the contrived construct of a house they couldn’t leave. But inevitably people’s behaviour changes when they’re under surveillance, and it was the contestants whose behaviour was the most challenging, if not outrageous, even warped, that seemed to become the greatest celebrities. It became a vehicle for rewarding outrageous behaviours carried out in plain sight.
So it is somewhat fitting that Russell Brand’s first big break on mainstream TV was hosting Big Brother’s Big Mouth in 2004, where he could out outrage the goings on in the house.
One winner of Celebrity Big Brother was Ulrika Jonsson, who over 20 years ago appeared on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross (October 2002, episode 1 of series 3) to laugh and chat, and also promote her autobiography, Honest.
The book disclosed an incident from the late 1980s, when Jonsson, then very early in her TV career as the TV-AM weather presenter, was raped by a well-known TV personality, with sufficient brutality to require her to go to hospital.
The incident was brought up on Ross’s show. Jonsson did not, and would not, name her assailant (and it wasn’t the person that ex-tabloid hack Matthew Wright “blurted” out days after the Ross interview). But as reported by the Independent amid the swirl of speculation over who it was, on the show Ross put it to her straight: ‘It was a presenter, wasn’t it?’.
Because, as he also said, “you hear things in this business, and I think I know who it is”. He asked her why she never went to the police – at least for the sake of protecting others.
Ross needn’t have victim-blamed Jonsson and could have simply guessed that shame, humiliation, not being believed, but being blacklisted, stayed her hand. But why didn’t Ross do anything? He’d heard enough from being in the biz that he could tell who it was from one single, anonymised account, as did others, suffice that he could with that much confidence come that close to naming him on air.
But he never said anything. And with such knowledge he moved on, laughing, joshing, with guest after guest, show after show, series after series. And no-one asked him, and no-one blamed him for not doing anything.
Incidentally, the furore encouraged former girlfriends of the suspect to come forward, alleging ‘improper sexual conduct’. They turned for advice (God help them) to Max Clifford, who, like Jeffrey Epstein, knew a lot – which would have further enabled their own crimes.
Who knew what
Was it all really so different 20 years ago? Obviously, this article was encouraged by allegations about Brand’s behaviour over the years, i.e., who knew what.
Inevitably, Ross and Brand, big-name funny men in the small world of British light entertainment, knew one another and hosted one another, most notably on Brand’s BBC Radio 2 show in 2008 for what would be known as #SachsGate. Though Brand quit over that, he’d similarly larked on air a year before when offering his assistant naked to Jimmy Savile.
For sure, the world at large in 2007 didn’t know the truth about Savile, and it would be wrong to frame Brand in any way by association of complicity with Sir Jimmy’s truly evil deeds beyond that day. But the ‘prank’ was self-explanatory, and the two participants’ mirrored one another’s behaviour.
And after Savile died in 2011 and it all came out, it was striking not just how much had all been in plain sight, but how much was actually known, by so many people in positions of power to stop it if not expose it.
Did everyone know? See the ease with which the comics riff on about Savile on Have I Got News For You, when Savile was alive and able to sue. In fact he served up suspicions on a plate to the chattering classes in 1999, when on that same show he revealed himself, metaphorically (series 17, episode 7, May 1999). His team captain Ian Hislop asks if he was a wrestler. “I still am. I’m feared in every girls’ school in this country.” About the caravan Savile kept on-site at BBC Television Centre, Hislop asked him what he does in there. ‘Anyone I can lay my hands on.’
How we laughed then. Then how we cringed when in 2012 it was all repeated on HIGNFY in light of his barbarity. In a very meta moment, Hislop watches Savile – and himself – commenting, ‘unbelievable’.
Hislop, the truly great editor of the brave and valuable investigative magazine Private Eye, sits there on that same BBC panel set where he sat with Savile, then expounds Clinton-like: “The thing is, it’s what the word ‘know’ means. If you say, ‘I knew about it’, you mean, ‘you’d heard the rumours’. Everyone had heard the rumours.”
Yes. Including Hislop.
But he continues: “If you actually knew about it, you should have done something about it. But the only people who know about it are the people to whom it’s happened, and they tend to be disadvantaged, 12, and not in the mood to go through a court trial. I mean that is why nothing came out.”
Yeah? I mean, Private Eye spends its life in libel courts. And Hislop, who’s held truth to power like none other, did he never think regarding those rumours, ‘actually, we want to know. Actually, we need to know’? Didn’t everyone need to know?
Funnily enough, I suspect Piers Morgan didn’t know. His investigative prowess parallels that of John Pilger or Carole Cadwalldr on matters of exposing the contents of a murdered schoolgirl’s voicemails – though is less knowledgable about how he came to possess such information. But when pictured partying with Gary Glitter, Max Clifford, Rolf Harris, Harvey Weinstein, Ghislaine Maxwell, his nose for news is blocked. “I’m not clairvoyant”, he said. Well no, no-one in their right mind expects you to be. What they might expect from you as a journalist, if not as a human being, is that you do your job following up on rumours and exposing the truth.
At the time of Hislop’s non mea culpa, another journalist, Janet Street-Porter was on BBC Question Time, talking about Saville, but compared with Hislop speaks with much greater certainty – amid something of a shifting argument. “Rest assured a lot of people knew about it at Television Centre, a lot of people knew what was going on”, she states. When she entered the TV biz in the early 1970s, she said there was “definitely a culture of inappropriate sexual behaviour in light entertainment that made me uncomfortable”. Savile for one was well ensconced on Top of the Pops and Jim’ll Fix It. But it was a ‘generational thing’, a culture that as a 20-something year-old woman, there “was nothing I could do or say about it”.
Nothing’s changed when by the late 1980s she comes to the BBC, although she’s become ‘an executive’ and working across the media, screen and print. Again, she said: “I was aware of the rumours about Jimmy Savile. I was also aware of rumours about other people.”
BBC doyen David Dimbleby asks, “When you say ‘knew’, a lot of people talk about, ‘I’d heard rumours’,’ you’re saying –”
“It was certainly more than rumours!” Street-Porter cuts in, “certainly more than rumours because it went on on a regular basis. But the women involved were just girls, from vulnerable situations, special schools, where Jimmy was supposed to be helping … Nobody would have believed them”.
But somebody believed something. She says Savile held a gun to the head of journalists saying if they exposed him all his charity work would end and funding for hospitals, special schools. So people knew, and he knew it too.
The audience gets restive. One woman asks (at 7.21) how, as a powerful, female figure in the media, what prevented Street-Porter blowing the whistle.
“I heard the rumours, but I was working in an environment that was totally male … Do you really think if I’d said something to somebody at the BBC higher up than me, ‘this is what’s going on’, nobody would have taken any notice of me whatsoever.”
She said it was “shocking” – but also, “there’s no doubt in my mind that it happened, no doubt at all”. Not shocking, then. Not at all.
She implored: “If you’re a well-known TV presenter, director, producer, able to hand out fame to a younger person, you must not abuse your position.” Her and Hislop agree that anyone “complicit in this also need to be brought to account”. Hislop: “The truth is, no-one actually knew. And if they did, they should be prosecuted.”
Very tellingly for 2012, Street-Porter spoke of the biz contemporaneously: “It’s not just a BBC thing, I think you’ll find it’s across commercial television as well.” And the world. Think Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly, Bill Cosby, in their prime across the ocean, all ‘in plain sight’. In the UK we had YewTree, then a few years later we had #MeToo writ globally. But it still went on, and it still goes on.
The point of Big Brother was people’s behaviour was so outrageous, that’s what was wanted to get viewers and newpaper gossip coverage, written by people like Dan Wootton, although to be outrageous it still has to be unexpected. The outrage all over tabloid front pages is of ‘news’ that is new, hitherto unknown, rare, not the norm.
Brand was hired by people, again and again and again, who knew he’d be outrageous on-screen. But what of his behaviour off-screen? It seems in a media world where any amount of appalling goings-on are in plain sight, profited from, encouraged, but actual knowledge and responsibility can be downgraded and avoided with a veil of ‘rumour’. Decade after decade after decade. People getting abused on an industrial scale and the people who should be telling the world, turn away.
*Author’s note. At time of writing, 13:30 on 19 September, the BBC reported that the BBC was removing lots of Brand content from its digital platforms. It’s hoped that the links above, not hosted by the BBC, remain intact.