LONDON (Reuters) - The British Broadcasting Corporation suspended one of its highest paid stars on Thursday over a lewd radio stunt that outraged thousands of listeners and fueled a storm of criticism of Britain’s public broadcaster.
Popular presenter Jonathan Ross, who is reputed to be paid six million pounds ($9.9 million) a year, will be suspended from all BBC broadcasting for 12 weeks without pay, the BBC said.
The scandal, which has swept the financial crisis off the front pages and dominated the airwaves for days, is over a stunt in which Ross and another top presenter verbally abused a 78-year-old comedy actor in a radio stunt that went wrong.
“Jonathan Ross’s contribution ... was utterly unacceptable and cannot be allowed to go uncensored or without sanction,” BBC Director-General Mark Thompson said in a statement.
The incident is deeply embarrassing for the BBC which enjoys a high reputation around the world for the quality of its news and other programs.
Russell Brand, a motor-mouth comedian with a burgeoning Hollywood career, and Ross left insulting messages on the answering machine of Andrew Sachs, best known for playing the hapless Spanish waiter Manuel in the well-known British comedy series “Fawlty Towers” in the 1970s.
The pair joked about how Brand had slept with Sachs’s 23-year-old granddaughter, and how when Sachs heard the messages he was likely to kill himself.
The program was broadcast late at night on October 18 and initially attracted little attention.
But following coverage in the rest of the media, including transcripts of the calls in which Ross, 47, and Brand, 33, swear and make sexual innuendo, complaints rocketed, with more than 30,000 people now registering their disgust.
Politicians from Prime Minister Gordon Brown down criticized the presenters while Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams was among many who questioned why BBC editors allowed the pre-recorded program to be broadcast.
Brand announced on Wednesday he was quitting his program on BBC’s Radio 2, an easy-listening station. The head of Radio 2, Lesley Douglas, resigned on Thursday over the incident.
Ross and Brand were initially suspended pending an investigation.
The BBC, funded through a license fee that all viewers must pay, plays a central role in British life, producing a wide variety of television and radio programs.
But it also strives for high ratings and to appeal to all segments of the population, including young people — many of whom say they think the performers did little wrong.
The BBC has been repeatedly hit by scandal in recent years.
In 2003, its coverage was strongly criticized by the government after the broadcaster suggested the case for war in Iraq had been “sexed up.” An inquiry sided with the government.
Last year it was admonished alongside commercial channel ITV for misleading the public through fake quizzes and competitions.
Reporting by Adrian Croft, Mike Holden, Peter Griffiths; Editing by Richard Williams