Was it ever going to be a good idea to challenge a ruling by the broadcast regulator? Back in July, when former national radio presenter Jon Gaunt lost his appeal over a court decision not to overturn the Ofcom judgement that he had breached the Broadcasting Code during an interview he conducted in November 2008, it was clear that this was an application of good old fashioned common sense by the three Court of Appeal judges. By handing down their verdict they finally brought to a close a rather sordid saga which had dragged on almost ever since the presenter was dismissed from the radio station he and I both worked for, for that self same interview.
In their judgement (which you can read in full here), the assembled judges described the interview with a local councillor over a recently introduced policy of not placing foster children with smokers in terms of its “…bullying manner, interruption, ranting and insults…”, making it all the more extraordinary that a supposedly professional broadcaster should even contemplate that calling his interviewee a Nazi was an acceptable form of debate whilst (with the backing of human rights group Liberty) insisting that his right to freedom of expression was being infringed by the sanction. Surely nobody could be so completely lacking in self awareness. But that it seems is Jon Gaunt all over.
I am personally of the opinion that this exercise in legal futility was more of a means to an end than anything else. Mr Gaunt’s stated desire to take legal action against his former employers for dismissing him was always going to be a non-starter with an Ofcom judgement against him for the very incident which cost him his job. By breaching the Code he was almost certainly in breach of contract and liable for summary dismissal. I think his only hope was to somehow make history and have the Ofcom finding overturned to clear the way for his vendetta, an attempt which as we have now seen has ended in rather inglorious failure. Indeed the whole affair has merely served to have his faults and failings as a broadcaster set out as a matter of public record. It is hard to see how any professional broadcast outlet would be willing to take a chance on putting him back on the air to present ever again.
There is a faint whiff of tragedy about what must surely be a rather sordid and humiliating end to the man’s mainstream broadcasting career, because close analysis of his life and work reveals that there is clearly an active and potentially rather brilliant mind at work, but sadly in use by a man whose very arrogance leads to his undoing.
When it was first published I was on record as praising Jon Gaunt’s autobiography ‘Undaunted’ as a quite fascinating read, and it indeed I stand by that analysis. In it you will find details of his past life as a champion of the arts, as a theatre manager and as a promoter of artistic talent. A great many comedians and performers from the West Midlands will grudgingly admit they owe him a genuine debt of gratitude for providing them with the platform from which they launched their careers. If you are paying close enough attention, Gaunt even appears in an unnamed cameo in Frank Skinner’s own autobiography as the theatrical promoter who rented the performer the Edinburgh stage for his first ever solo shows as a budding comedy star.
When he turned his hand to radio, Gaunt also managed to make an unexpectedly large impact. He repeatedly seizes on every opportunity available to refer back to what he was proud to call his “three Sony Radio awards”, all presented to him on the same night for a show he presented on local radio in Luton back in 2001. No matter that to this day there are grumbles that technically two of them were awarded to the production team working on his programme rather than himself personally as a presenter and that the three gongs were all for the same individual broadcast, hair splitting aside he can still legitimately claim to have hosted at least one programme which has been judged worthy of three of the industry’s highest accolades. That is actually worth shouting about regardless of who you are. It remains three more than I have ever won for a start.
When the upward career trajectory which resulted from this triumph finally brought him to national radio prominence on the mid-morning show on talkSPORT, it was hard not to be impressed – at least initially. Having witnessed myself at first hand the kind of tedious shows which had occupied that slot over the years, Gaunt was truly a breath of fresh air. On virtually every programme he did the switchboard was routinely jammed with antagonised or fired up listeners wanting to have their say on the topic of the day. If you judge a phone-in show by the level of response it generates from the listeners, then the Jon Gaunt programme was up there with the best. His audience figures shortly after his debut spoke for themselves, with Gaunt’s arrival almost doubling the listenership for that slot in one fell swoop in comparison with its previous incumbent. Love him or hate him (and plenty professed to do the latter as we shall see) he was clearly required listening for some.
I never had any particular personal axe to grind with him either. On the odd occasion when I covered a shift working on his programme it was possible to appreciate his focus, his careful approach to setting out the arguments he was presenting, and perhaps more importantly be in a position to spot the moments when there was a small element of self-parody in some of his more astounding pronouncements. The downside to this approach being naturally that it is hard to see a twinkle in the eye on the radio, and so to many listening he was simply sliding deeper and deeper into extremism as his views on his favourite subjects slid ever further into outrageousness.
I should also take time out to pay tribute to the one time when he went over and above the call of duty on his show. One day in 2007 I was saddled with trying to wrestle onto the air the radio station’s side of a charity appeal for the NSPCC which a bookmaking client had asked us to be involved in. Part of my brief involved allocating various spokesmen for the charity a slot on the air to discuss their work and to solicit further donations. Whilst most shows begrudgingly granted their interviewee a five minute chat, Jon Gaunt seized the opportunity to make the NSPCC the focus of the first part of his show, offering the charity spokesman an hour long slot as his studio guest and doing more than anyone else to make the whole appeal sounded like it mattered. It was a classy and professional thing to do, going above and beyond either what was required or what any of the other producers felt able to do that day, and I respected him enormously for it.
In fact more than many of the people he worked with on air, Gaunt was actually an extremely proficient and highly skilled broadcaster, particularly when it came to the core tools of the medium. In fact so good was he that during his tenure the radio station picked up the most bizarre Ofcom judgement ever when the regulators were concerned there was insufficient distinction between a commercial script he read and the programme surrounding it. Most of the other presenters had little clue how to deliver a scripted read in a manner which sounded natural and unforced. Gaunt’s delivery of the sponsored read was so seamless and so relaxed that it was nonsensically deemed to have breached broadcasting regulations. This may rank as the only time the presenter breached Ofcom rules and commanded universal sympathy around the office for the monstrous unfairness of it.
As good as all this sounds, Mr Gaunt’s radio work did suffer from a single but hugely significant flaw. Much of the “quality” was at best superficial. Probe a little deeper, study the shows for any length of time and you would discover just how true it is that empty vessels echo so much louder.
Not long after he started at the radio station in the summer of 2006, I had a brief conversation with his then producer, commenting that his new host appeared to have got off to a flyer, with the switchboard routinely jammed with eager contributors, as I mentioned in marked contrast to some of the shows in that slot which I had worked on prior to his arrival. “That is true,” he commented, “but in all fairness he has rather gone for tap-ins. Cutting edge it isn’t”. This was indeed the case. What we refer to as tap-ins are the tried and tested subjects on which every mouth-breather under the sun has an opinion. For football shows it is the old standing v sitting debate, or should Celtic and Rangers join the Premier League. For current affairs debates it was the usual – immigration, sex offenders, custodial sentencing, “broken Britain”. Yes it provokes a response, and yes you are guaranteed a full switchboard, but at the same time it is lazy radio. Everything that can possibly have been said on the subject has been debated already and there is very little to be learned from treading the same tired old paths again and again. Yet this was all too often the Gaunt strategy, homing in on his pet subjects, playing to the gallery and worse still establishing his own point of view on the subject as the unimpeachable truth, resisting all attempts by people to disprove his point.
This lack of depth all too often infested his one time weekly column in The Sun, an effort whose subject matter would often feed back onto the radio shows and in many cases vice versa. He was justly proud of the platform this gave him and clearly fancied himself as the heir to Littlejohn, a strident right wing polemicist who could eviscerate his enemies with a well chosen turn of phrase or better yet some rapier wit. The problem was that he just wasn’t that good a writer, his columns full of bland admonishments for some misdemeanour on the part of public servants or expressions of disgust about matters which will indeed have been viewed as disgusting according to the orthodoxy of the publication he wrote for. Anyone searching the prose for an elegant turn of phrase, a genuinely new insight on the matter at hand or even the tiniest spark of genius was bound to some away disappointed. It was possible to see a parallel between what I always saw as the frustrating mediocrity of his written work and the long-term quality of his radio show. Bereft of any new terrific new ideas or new bandwagons to leap aboard, he was reduced to singing from the same small hymn sheet of songs with the almost inevitable result that he ran out of constructive things to say and was reduced to red-faced ranting. That was never going to end well.
For a man defining himself by his strident and forceful points of view, he was furthered hampered by one of the thinnest skins I’ve ever come across, unable to take criticism on the chin and reacting to any negative point of view as if intended as an aggressive personal insult. This made his desire to expose himself to it at all times all the more bizarre. Before he arrived on the scene, texts and emails sent into the studio were processed by the production staff who would filter out the illiterate and the insane before presenting the written contributions to the presenter to deal with as they saw fit. Gaunt insisted that he was more than capable of digesting his own listener contributions and successfully lobbied for a computer terminal to be installed by the presenter desk where it remains to this day. This did sadly mean that there was subsequently no filter in place and he was exposed throughout the show to the seedier side of the listening public’s tongue lashings. The net result of this was that he would frequently become enraged by some particularly barbed piece of personal criticism sent in via text and waste precious on air minutes banging the desk in rage at the person who had dared to besmirch him in such a manner. Granted some people did indeed cross the line, going down the keyboard warrior path of threatening harm not only to the man himself but members of his family, but it was a button that his most vicious haters quickly learned to push. Often when a message came in that he found particularly offensive or threatening he would loudly insist on air that the police would be contacted, forcing the production team each time to go through the motions of alerting the (indifferent) local constabulary that some radio station listener had said something nasty about the presenter’s mother. I can neither confirm nor deny that during particularly quiet days on the office floor, we used to send our own insults through to the studio just to see which particular shade of purple we could make the ludicrous man go.
This lack of self awareness and fragile self-confidence even apparently manifested itself off air as it seems that Gaunt (or somebody purporting to represent him) would routinely trawl the internet for slights upon his person, firing off spittle-flecked communications to anyone he felt had defamed him by daring to suggest that he might actually be wrong about something. One friend of mine found himself on the receiving end of such a tirade when a message board which he ran happened to sprout a topic about something the man himself had said or done. The first he knew of any problem was an email which read:
Although even this was surpassed when despite repeated requests for clarification as to exactly what the offending material was, the entity who initiated the communication responded with:
Now I should stress here that there is absolutely no direct proof and nothing to suggest that the person emailing as “gauntyinfo” was Jon Gaunt himself (although colleagues regularly communicated with him via email addresses from that same unusual internet domain, if not that specific address) and indeed given the aggressive and threatening tone of the missives it seems highly unlikely that such rather sinisterly worded communications would have come directly from such a well respected broadcaster in a position of such national prominence. He does in that case have some rather obsessed and slightly unhinged fans or associates who are prepared to go to some rather extreme lengths to defend the name of their idol online and it can only be hoped that it makes him as uncomfortable to read of this as my friend was to be on the receiving end of these threats.
Gaunt’s thin skin even extended to being unable to deal with jibes from his fellow presenters. James Whale, when he occupied the opposite end of the schedule, used to take great delight in poking fun on air at what he saw as the man’s broadcasting shortcomings, going as far as to play Sweep puppet sound effects as an imitation of Gaunt’s rather high pitched tones and conducting an on air conversation with the noises. All good fun and all in the noble tradition of speech radio potshots as pioneered by Howard Stern and Don Imus back in the 1980s and in actual fact a rather superb piece of cross-promotion. Whether he intended it that way or not, Whale was merely ensuring that Gaunt was the most talked-about presenter on the station, a situation which could only result in ever improved figures for his show as people tuned in to see what the fuss was about. Rather than embracing this or laughing it off and trying to give back as good as he got as any sensible person would, instead the station management would regularly receive telephone calls from Gaunt’s agent complaining that their client disliked being undermined in this way and requesting that some action be taken to ensure it ceased forthwith. None ever was, to Whale’s oft-stated amusement.
Believe it or not, the man who would deflect criticism from listeners on air (and indeed from those he worked with off it) with the pompous expression “when I want tips on broadcasting, I’ll ask” eventually had the chutzpah to refute the radio station’s account of the events that led up to his sacking, protesting that “he disputed that the requirement to remain with the [Ofcom] Code was ever made clear to him …. stating that he had received no training in this respect.”
Perhaps he simply forgot to ask.
I mentioned above that the most positive aspect of the Gaunt show, particularly in its early months, was its healthy performance in the audience figures. With some small settling of the numbers this by and large remained the case right up until his demise – although this wasn’t without its downside. Close analysis of the measured figures revealed that although he did have an audience, his constant on-air references to “my listeners” (as if they were all some kind of club) was nearer the truth than anyone imagined. Gaunt’s audience grew increasingly unique to him as time went on, a slightly older demographic than that of the rest of the programming on the station. They were tuning in for him, and him alone and not actually sticking around for any of the subsequent presenters, regardless of how skilled Gaunt’s promotion of them was. Ask any radio programmer and they will tell you that this isn’t automatically a good thing. Your reach may go up, but your average listening hours plummet.
People used to wonder just how he managed to command an audience given the large numbers of people who cared to express an opinion declaring that they switched off in protest the minute he came on. If that was indeed the case, then it never really mattered as for every three who stayed away at 10am, two more came in to replace them. The problem was that once things returned to “normal” at 1pm, Gaunt’s audience by and large waved goodbye for the day, badly damaging the programmes which followed, which then effectively had to draw in an audience from scratch. He had a large audience, no doubt about it, but in the long term its value to the radio station was actually rather limited, and they weren’t missed when he finally left.
For my part, the moment when the scales fell from my own eyes and I saw the man as he truly was came just a few weeks before his ultimate departure from the radio station. In October 2008 we suffered what became known as the “weekend from hell” when an electrical fault knocked out our studios for three days. On that Friday morning we had been forced to decamp across town to the premises of another radio station from where we would be able to resume broadcasting. I was on duty at this temporary facility from early on, having been summoned from my bed to assist the breakfast show in getting back on air. Due on air after that was Jon Gaunt, who had travelled across town in a taxi along with his production staff who had been at pains to explain to him that they were about to do a show with limited resources and that it would be very much a case of improvising whilst guests and telephone calls could be arranged.
Gaunt arrived at the studio, took one look at the facilities available – a microphone, a few newspapers and his wits – and flew into a blind panic. At the door to the studio he refused point blank to go on air, throwing a tantrum and insisting that the breakfast team (already 20 minutes past their scheduled slot) would have to stay on until guests were arranged or until suitable telephone lines had been rigged up for him to take calls. In front of many witnesses (all of whom confirmed my recollections of the incident), both his own colleagues and the staff of the station who were generously hosting us, he behaved in a manner which was unprofessional, unedifying, embarrassing and which only served to make an already stressful situation even harder to deal with.
His attitude stood in stark contrast to that of a fellow presenter later that same day. After we had prematurely returned to our usual premises, the studios died once again and for a short period our only means of broadcasting was an outside broadcast kit connected directly to the transmitter network. At the height of the emergency and armed once again with little more than his wits and a fistful of the day’s newspapers, Danny Kelly was apologetically invited to wear a headset and keep the station on the air by whatever means he could whilst we re-established the link to the backup studios. This he did with good cheer and not a little style, conducting a monologue which must have lasted for at least ten minutes. All without complaint.
More than anything else, the events of that day exposed Gaunt for what he really was. The proud three-time Sony Award Winning broadcaster, national newspaper columnist and self-proclaimed voice of the common man was indeed exposed as a classic empty vessel, man whose talents had been measured and found wanting when it mattered the most and in my eyes a man whose ego wrote cheques his ability simply could not cash. The French have an expression for it: péter plus haut que son cul “to fart higher than one’s arse”. From that moment on it was hard to hear him talk without feeling the rush of hot air.
Perhaps it was inevitable that within weeks of this incident he finally span out of control, spat bile at a public servant taking the time out of their day to discuss their policies and effectively plunged his on air career and reputation down the toilet. It was in a sense, frustrating timing. His production team were only too aware that they needed to work with him to develop his radio show, move him away from the ranty right winger persona into a more mature and considered one. For the first time in his career take him to Act II and expand who he could be as a broadcaster, even if the man himself was convinced there was no particular need. This is really the core of the tragedy. He had it in him to be a shining star of the genre and a truly great communicator, but so convinced was he of his own infallibility that he seemed unwilling to put the time in to develop. And was then fired from his biggest gig ever before any plans could be put into practice anyway.
As one final footnote to this rather sordid tale, I thought it appropriate to offer up one final example of the shortcomings of Gaunt’s broadcasting ability. Just prior to Christmas 2006 I had been charged with preparing the specially recorded shows which would be broadcast over the holiday period. Pride of place in the schedule was the annual Clash Of The Titans show, which saw the biggest names on the station all put in a studio together and invited to argue with each other. All the weekday talk hosts had been invited to participate, with Jon Gaunt making his debut on the show having joined the station earlier that year.
Not long before the recording, an unseemly row blew up. At least one of the other participants was keen for other recent recruit George Galloway to participate in the show, but this had apparently vetoed by the management. Rumour circulated that Gaunt had blocked his inclusion in the programme and refused to participate if the MP was included, something directly stated as fact by Galloway himself when he came on air immediately after the broadcast of the show, seething after hearing himself described as a “guttersnipe” during one exchange where his name came up.
For the record, I don’t believe there was any truth in this whatsoever. As producer of the show, I was informed well ahead of time what the line-up was to be and was charged with ensuring they were all present in the studio on the appointed day. At no time was there ever any question that George would be included on the panel, and indeed given that he was scheduled to be on air with a live show immediately afterwards it would have sounded odd to hear him as part of the previous debate. The very idea that any one presenter had veto over the make-up of the panel was simply ludicrous and can be rejected out of hand as the ravings of some large egos who could still be capable of acting like small children when required.
Nonetheless the issue clearly still rankled with James Whale, to name but one, and he took the opportunity near the end of the recording to confront Gaunt about Galloway’s absence and his part in this. I was secretly delighted, as by and large I’d presided over the recording of a show which saw 90 minutes of four men sitting around agreeing with each other and this was genuinely the one moment where the Titans were actually Clashing as per the title of the show. Nonetheless word of this exchange filtered back to my boss (I’ve no idea how) who instructed me that under no circumstances was it to go out on air in that form and that the exchange instead should instead be edited from the recording. I pressed for its inclusion but sadly to no avail. “Do it, or else” was the unequivocal instruction. Getting a clean edit out of was a more or less impossible task and it meant that this particular segment of the programme sounded rather odd upon broadcast, with a swift cut to a commercial break out of nowhere and a slight under-run on the running time, but I had little choice in the matter. As it turned out the programme was only broadcast once, as after Galloway’s slightly unprofessional on-air rant afterwards, further planned repeats were pulled from the schedule and another show substituted instead.
Fortunately for posterity I kept all the studio rushes and with five years having now elapsed it seems a shame for the short segment not to finally receive an airing. With Mr Gaunt’s new-found enthusiasm for freedom of speech (as backed by his former nemesis Shami Chakrabati) I am sure he would welcome the 2006 Clash Of The Titans being made available finally in uncensored form. It is his basic human right after all.