Tory weighs into Ross/Brand row

Shadow Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt criticises the BBC for its reaction to the Ross/Brand prank cal

A senior Tory has attacked the way the BBC reacted to a string of offensive prank calls carried out by broadcasters Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand.

Shadow Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt was speaking just before the BBC presenters were suspended for leaving the inappropriate messages on Fawlty Towers actor Andrew Sachs's mobile phone.

Hunt said: “The BBC have not reacted to this problem in a way that has given the public confidence that they understand the very great offence that they have caused."

The two presenters have issued apologies to Sachs but there was widespread disappointment that the BBC had failed to issue a strong, timely apology. The organisation received over 10,000 complaints about the programme, which included lewd comments about Sach's granddaughter.

“I do think the BBC is a socially responsible broadcaster, I just think we need to hear that,” said Hunt during talk on the future of public service broadcasting at the London School of Economics.

But the Tory frontbencher stopped short of issuing a call for resignations.

“It is wrong, in principle, for politicians to be calling for heads of individual broadcasting to be removed,” said Hunt whose comments follow criticism of Ross and Brand by Prime Minister Gordon Brown and other politicians.

Many see a failure in the BBC review process of pre-recorded shows which should have been applied to the broadcast.

“I can't believe that [BBC director general] Mark Thompson really believes that it was appropriate for that broadcast to happen,” said Hunt. He expressed disappointment that the BBC had not released the name of the employee who allowed the programme to air.

The suspension of Brand and Ross will continue through to the end of the BBC internal investigation, which is being led by Tim Davie, the BBC director of audio and music.

Ofcom, the media watchdog, has also launched an inquiry which could lead to a £250,000 fine and compulsory on-air apology. In addition, two complaints about the scandal had been made to the police under the Protection from Harassment Act.

Hunt did stress the social responsibility that public service broadcasters like the BBC have to the public. “They receive huge public subsidies, both in cash through the licence fee and implicitly through spectrum subsidy and prime positions on electronic programme guides. Surely it is reasonable for broadcasters to take more responsibility for the social impact of their programmes.

“This is not to say they should be doing more “worthy” programmes with tiny audiences,” he said. It is important that the BBC continue to run entertaining shows and attract large audiences.

Simply because the offensive programme was broadcast late at night, after the nine o'clock watershed, “isn't an excuse,” said Hunt. “That kind of broadcasting can legitimise the kind of offensive behaviour that worries a great many people in the British public.”

There have been numerous controversies surrounding the two radio and TV presenters.

When it was released in 2006 that BBC had a £18m, three year contract with Jonathan Ross, much of the public was outraged. Ross's on-air style had been criticised for focusing too heavily on sex.

Russell Brand was fired from MTV for dressing as Osama bin Laden the day after September 11, 2001.