A very British scandal

The BBC's latest travail.

As the world economy teeters on the brink of recession and the U.S. braces for a landmark election, Britain has been gripped by an altogether different kind of news story.

For Canadians, the characters involved range from the obscure to the unknown: a comedian whose humour doesn't translate well across the pond, an aging actor best known for a bit part in a cult comedy series three decades ago, an exotic dancer and an extremely well-paid radio host.    What brought them all together? A series of crude, juvenile, crank phone calls and a groundswell of tabloid-driven public reaction that has shaken Britain's venerable public broadcaster, the BBC, to its core.

It all started two weeks ago. Russell Brand, a potty-mouthed comedian with a show on BBC radio, joined forces with Jonathan Ross, another BBC shock-jock.

BBC radio hosts Jonathan Ross, left, and Russell Brand, right, currently suspended for an on-air prank that has brought the BBC into disrepute. ((Associated Press))

During a pre-taped radio program, the two repeatedly called the home of 78-year-old actor Andrew Sachs, best known for his role as Manuel the waiter in the television series Fawlty Towers.   Giggling, swearing and shouting, Brand and Ross left a series of obscene messages on Sachs's answering machine. Brand, among other things, claimed to have had sex with Sachs's granddaughter.

More than a few giggles

The show went to air in its usual Saturday night time slot. The BBC received a few complaints afterward, but nothing extraordinary.

Soon, however, British papers caught wind of the broadcast and alerted Sachs, who hadn't heard it.

When played a tape of the program, Sachs declared himself offended. Then his 23-year-old granddaughter Georgina Baillie — the woman Brand claimed to have had sex with — jumped in.

Baillie is a member of a burlesque dance troupe called Satanic Sluts Extreme. She admits she has had sex with Brand. But she wasn't very happy about him bragging about it on the radio.

In an interview with a London paper, she called for the two hosts to be fired.

A flood of complaints

What started off as a lame prank had now snowballed into a full-fledged crisis for the BBC. Tens of thousands of BBC listeners were calling or writing to express their outrage.

The prime minister and the leader of the opposition waded in, with the Tories demanding a debate on the scandal in Parliament and Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown demanding the BBC "take action" to deal with the lewd language.

Apologies were issued and inquiries launched. Jonathan Ross was suspended for three months without pay. Brand resigned from the BBC. So did Lesley Douglas, the woman who ran BBC2. And it's all been front-page news.

The taxpayers' broadcaster

To an outsider, what this saga reveals first is the dizzying array of stars and celebrities who can be fabulously rich and famous here in Britain but invisible outside the bounds of the UK.

It also shows the British public's love/hate relationship with the BBC, not to mention the dangers faced by a broadcaster that tries to be highbrow, lowbrow and everything in between.

The BBC receives nearly $8 billion a year directly from British taxpayers. Every person in the country who owns a television pays an annual licence fee of about $300.

For their money, the British get an unparalleled national and international news service and home-grown comedy and drama that is often shown around the world.

What they also get, however, is programming some people find offensive and stars that can receive salaries many find obscene.

Russell Brand was paid about $400,000 a year for hosting his radio program. But that's peanuts compared to Jonathan Ross. His three-year contract with the BBC, where he hosts both radio and TV programs, is worth about $12-million per year, one of the richest in British broadcasting.

For Britons facing a recession and worried about their savings and pensions, the idea that so much of their money is going to a man whose job description includes making prank calls to senior citizens is all a bit hard to take.

The BBC is deciding how to proceed in light of the more than 30,000 complaints.

Andrew Sachs has accepted apologies from Brand and Ross. His granddaughter, Georgina Baillie, says justice has been done. And she is said to be the subject of a bidding war between British tabloids, eager to buy her story and offer her a chance to get revenge on Brand, her loose-lipped one-time lover.

 Stay tuned.