Charles Moore

The Spectator’s Notes | 1 November 2008

Charles Moore's reflections on the week

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What would happen if you or I or telephoned an old man we did not know and left a message on his answering machine saying that one of us had ‘f—–ed’ his grand-daughter? What would happen if we then left three more messages, joking about her menstruation and imitating his voice as, in our imagination, he said he would kill himself because of the shame? What if our messages pointed out that most grandparents have pictures of their nine-year-old grandchildren by the telephone on a swing and then went on to say that one of us had ‘enjoyed’ his grand-daughter in that position? What would happen if we also shouted into the answering machine ‘I’ll kill you!’ and added that we would come round and ‘knock his door down and scream apologies into his bottom’? We should surely be arrested, possibly imprisoned. But then you and I are only normal citizens. The two men who actually did all of the above (and more, such as taunting him for being lonely) are Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross, who recorded their calls to the 78-year-old Andrew Sachs so that they could be broadcast on their show on Radio 2. Ross is paid £6 million a year and Brand is paid more than £200,000 by the BBC to do this sort of thing. They are powerful establishment figures. So even their critics are mostly a bit circumspect. Ross and Brand, say shadow spokesmen and chairmen of parliamentary committees, are talented, ‘edgy’, ‘pushing the boundaries’, though they may have gone too far this time. After holding off for nearly a fortnight, the BBC has finally suspended them. Wouldn’t it be better to call the police?

It is impossible to be ‘edgy’ if you are paid £6 million (or even £200,000) out of compulsory television licence-fee money and are backed by the biggest broadcasting organisation in the world. Ross and Brand might have some use, and some courage, if they were struggling on the low-paid pub circuit, living dangerously off their scabrous wit. But their position is one of the most incredible privilege, deferred to by bosses who are terrified of seeming stuffy and have no sense of humour or honour of their own with which to exercise judgment. Like caricatures of French aristocrats before the Revolution, the Brands and Rosses are allowed to make sport of the vulnerable and continue to exact their taxes from the peasantry (you and me). The BBC, so down on a politician who makes an off-colour remark about immigration, so passionately concerned to forbid anything on air which might give any offence to Muslims, lets its stars make obscene and threatening telephone calls to a Jewish grandfather in order to get millions to laugh at his humiliation. Mr Sachs’s father fled Nazi persecution in Berlin in the 1930s and brought his family to England. Could he ever have imagined that, 70 years after the Kristallnacht, his son would end up being telephoned by this ‘comic’, post-modern version of the Gestapo?

Russell Brand is not in Who’s Who, I see, and all the BBC executives wisely give only Broadcasting House as their address, but Jonathan Ross can be found via his agent or firm, Off the Kerb Productions — 0207 700 4477. Why not ring him up and leave some ‘edgy’, amusing messages?

I can see the BBC would have trouble understanding why threatening messages are not nice, since it sends them out in bulk every day. As readers of this column will know, I am one of the hundreds of thousands of people who (in my case, in my London flat) do not have a television and therefore do not have a television licence. All of us are sent letters by the BBC — I have now received about 30 — accusing us of television-licence evasion. They do not, so far, tell us that the Director-General, Mark Thompson, has slept with our grandchildren, but it can only be a matter of time. My latest piece of hate mail from TV Licensing (the tax-collecting arm of the BBC) has just arrived. The four-page leaflet makes the unqualified assumption that I am watching a television without a licence ‘despite repeated requests for payment’, and goes on ‘We catch around 1,000 evaders every day [Really? Why aren’t 365,000 people each year clogging the courts?]. If you become one of them, you might find the following advice helpful.’ Page two is then devoted to ‘What to expect if you’re summoned to court’. This must be the BBC’s idea of a joke.

‘Making a virtue of necessity’ is the phrase which exactly describes Gordon Brown’s fiscal policy at present. Because of his previous overspending and the collapse of revenues and rising welfare costs caused by the credit crunch, he is forced to borrow and spend more. So he announces that this is his policy for stability, fairness, etc. We have been here before. In 1975, the British government started to run out of money. A certain Alan Greenspan, then the Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers to President Gerald Ford, wrote to him to say ‘Observe that the British economy appears to be at the point where they must accelerate the amount of governmental fiscal stimulus just to stand still. That is a very frightening situation.’ In the following year, the pound sank to $1.56, and in October the Labour government had to call in the IMF to rescue the public finances. Last week, after Mr Brown had started to boast about how he would borrow and spend, the pound, which touched $2.00 in July, ended the week at $1.58. In 1976, a Labour prime minister, Jim Callaghan, saved the day by telling his party ‘in all candour’ that the option of going on as before no longer existed. No such candour from Mr Brown. Will he be sunk, like his predecessors, by the thing he has most wanted to avoid, a collapse of sterling?

There is, of course, a strong argument that when banks won’t lend and people daren’t borrow, the government should do their borrowing and spending for them. But the virtue of such measures depends on where you start from. Between 1933 and 1939, F.D. Roosevelt increased the annual civilian expenditure of the US federal government by 200 per cent, but this was from a modest total of two billion dollars to six billion dollars. President Bush’s last federal budget, announced in February, was $3.1 trillion. Even when allowance is made for 70 years of inflation, the difference is almost unimaginably large. Something similar applies in Britain. We could do better ‘Keynesian’ things today, if we had stopped doing them so excessively before. Contrary to general belief, we never really did.