A Media Fable

| Thu Oct. 30, 2008 12:11 PM PDT

A MEDIA FABLE....Want to hear a story about the power of the media to shape public narratives? I know, I know, they're a dime a dozen. But this one from Britain is so spectacular that it's worth hearing about.

Here's what happened. Two weeks ago, an "edgy" comedian on BBC Radio 2 named Russell Brand decided to play a phone prank. Brand had once had a relationship with Georgina Baillie, the 23-year-old granddaughter of Andrew Sachs, the actor who played Manuel in Fawlty Towers, so he and his partner Jonathan Ross decided to give Sachs a call. They got Sachs' answering machine, and started off with this:

Brand: Look Andrew Sachs I have got respect for you and your lineage and your progeny, never let that be questioned.

Ross: Don't hint ...

Brand: I weren't hinting! Why did that come across as a hint?

Ross: Because you know what you did ...

Brand: That wasn't a hint ...

Ross: He fucked your granddaughter!

[laughter in the studio]

Brand: That's his answerphone!

Ross: I'm sorry ... I apologise Andrew, I apologise, I can't help it, you were talking about it and it was in my head, I apologise.

Half a million people were listening to this. The reaction was....nothing. Literally. Apparently there were a grand total of two complaints after the show aired.

In other words, the public had spoken, and they couldn't have cared less. So what happened next? Answer: a Mail on Sunday reporter alerted Sachs' agent, who asked for an apology from Brand and got it a week after the initial broadcast. Still, no one cared. The next day, though, the Mail splashed Brand all over its front page and has been giving him front page treatment ever since. It's sort of like the Fox News 24/7 loop whenever they get their hands on something useful to rile up the rubes.

So: left to their own opinions, no one cared about this. It's not as if it was a secret only brought to light after deep investigative reporting, after all. Even Sachs doesn't seem to have cared much to begin with (he apparently "reluctantly" approved broadcasting the tape before it aired). But after the Mail got its claws into the story, it became a national crisis. Brand has since been forced to quit the show, Ross is under fire to leave too, and the BBC is said to be near collapse over the episode. Earlier this week reporters descended on Italy to find the BBC's director-general, who was on vacation, and on Tuesday both the prime minister Gordon Brown and conservative leader David Cameron weighed in. The director-general quickly cut his vacation short and as I write this is apparently holding emergency meetings of the kind last seen in Churchill's bunker during World War II.

That's the power of the media for you. On October 18th two people complained. For a week after that nobody said a word. Today, one week and five front pages later, the entire country is in the middle of a firestorm. Remarkable, no?

UPDATE: Ezra has another good one here. It's more of a garden variety media fuckup, but still worth a quick read.

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