November 21, 2008 / 4:20 PM / 10 years ago

CORRECTED: BBC star escapes further sanction over prank call

Corrects word in quote in first and penultimate paragraphs to “grossly” from “dreadfully”

A tattered flag flies in a strong breeze above the BBC headquarters in London November 21, 2008. REUTERS/Andrew Winning

By Tim Castle

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - The BBC’s supervisory body said prank telephone calls by TV host Jonathan Ross and comedian Russell Brand were “so grossly offensive” they should never have been broadcast, but did not call for Ross to be sacked.

The BBC Trust described the calls broadcast on Brand’s radio show as a “deplorable intrusion” into the private lives of actor Andrew Sachs and his granddaughter.

But it said on Friday that it was happy with the action proposed by the publicly funded British broadcaster’s bosses.

More than 40,000 people contacted the BBC to complain about Brand’s October 18 Radio 2 show containing the lewd calls to Sachs, who played Spanish waiter Manuel in the classic 1970s comedy “Fawlty Towers.”

The presenters left messages on the actor’s mobile phone joking that Brand had slept with Georgina Baillie, Sachs’s 23-year-old granddaughter.

Brand and Lesley Douglas, the head of Radio 2, resigned amid a growing furor while Ross, one of the corporation’s highest paid stars, was suspended for 12 weeks without pay.

BBC Trust Chairman Michael Lyons said it was not the Trust’s job to decide which shows or artists appear on the BBC and that it was content with the sanction already imposed on Ross.

“We are very clear that the director general (Mark Thompson) has taken the right action with respect to Jonathan Ross and we see nothing new in the evidence that we have received to go further than that,” he said.

Many newspapers, commentators and MPs had called for Ross to be sacked for his part in the broadcast.

But speaking to journalists at the publication of a Trust inquiry into the affair, Lyons said his organization would not be goaded by calls for additional penalties on the outspoken presenter.

“If in responding to your pressures we go further, where does it end? It starts with comedians and ends with making judgments about who presents the news and how it is presented.

“This is a fundamental constitutional position that the Trust is not going to breach.”

He said the broadcast was a failure of editorial judgment but was not a sign of an endemic malaise across the BBC.

“It has been a disappointing and dismal episode ... however let us not forget that BBC proves everyday that it usually gets things right.”

BBC Trust member Richard Tait said the senior management of Radio 2 had made serious misjudgments in recommending the Sachs calls for broadcast and then authorizing their transmission.

“The material about Mr. Sachs and his granddaughter Georgina Baillie in two editions of the Russell Brand Show was so grossly offensive that there was no justification for its broadcast,” Tait said.

“The recording and broadcast of these remarks was a deplorable intrusion into their private lives with no editorial justification and with no informed consent obtained.”

Reporting by Tim Castle; Editing by Michael Holden

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