What Are TV’s Banishable Offences?


Jonathan Ross has returned to our screens recently with his new refurbished chat show. With marquee interviews a regular occurrence and Ross’ style making for entertaining viewing, few complaints have echoed around Britain.

Yet his rise, after his infamous fall in the Andrew Sachs case, would seem to suggest that there’s almost no such thing as going ‘too far’ on television. Neither Ross, nor Russell Brand’s careers have been hindered, and so it’s worth asking: How far do you have to go before you’re off TV?

There’s a fine-line between a six-figure income and reputable disaster. On one side is sexism, homophobia, bullying and boasting of sexual exploits to the girl in question’s grandfather. On the other side, so far as I can see, it racism and, well, that’s it.

Ross, Brand and Jeremy Clarkson have proved that, in the long run, anything goes with the defence of attempted wit. All have been labelled previously with one of the above epithets and a slap on the wrist has been their most detrimental punishment. Ask Ron Atkinson, however, and he’ll tell you that actively declaring himself a lifelong EDL member would have been better for his career than his comment on Marcel Desailly.

A big problem lies in how you can’t have the best of both worlds. Risk equals entertainment, we all know that. So if we want our TV presenters to entertain us, then shouldn’t we tolerate the odd mishap here and there? Is the line that British television has drawn itself a reasonable one, or a distorted system marred in favouritism and obsessed with good ratings?

This is a difficult question to answer, but what is clear is that the British public can tolerate almost anything if it was a joke that went too far. If Ron Atkinson had made his comment as part of a joke with a different choice of word, perhaps a different spin could have emerged. But because it was a casual comment off-air, Ron was rightly given the tag of plain racism – inexcusable.

So aside from racism what would Jonathan Ross have to do to get booted off the air? Since every move he makes is an attempted form of entertainment, I would argue that anything that goes wrong will be excused with that exact defence.

Turkish presenter Gozde Kansu was recently kicked off the air for wearing a low-cut top, but if Ross was female that would do little to create more than a talking point in the UK. Obviously paedophilia, just like racism, is an instant, irreparable route to never being on a TV screen again. But Frankie Boyle consistently hid both subjects under a protective humour blanket and would be welcomed with open arms back onto a range of panel shows.

So should we forgive this? Should Jonathan Ross be back on TV? Well one good thing to take from this is that if the British public disapproved strongly of the Sachs affair, then he certainly wouldn’t be on TV again – exercising the public freedom that people have, to a certain extent, in choosing what we watch. Whether or not that’s right is a different matter, but many other countries certainly don’t have that luxury.

We all slip up from time to time and we all say things that, if we were on TV, would make the headlines faster than we could possibly imagine. However bad you found Ross and Brand, their continued success is a reflection of public forgiveness. Or ignorance, you decide.