Discover more from Conquest of the Useless
An unpleasant frequency.
Kathy Burke's new documentary has revived a persistent internet myth and all-too-real comments from Chris Moyle's arrogant and sleazy heyday.
Previously: One of those days.
Newspapers so keen on censoring the usual f-word are equally quick to damp down mentions of "fascism". Liberals? They offer the same heartfelt monologues as the last time we had "one of those days".
Update: This edition was updated the day after publication to include a clarification based on information from Matt Kelly. The additional text begins “Matt Kelly says he doesn’t think the address was published…” and concludes with “…critical reasons”.
I started high school in 1997. Every evening the school bus radio was tuned to BBC Radio One and from October 1998 onwards the voice we heard belonged to Chris Moyles. It was a small minibus and Moyles’ personality expanded to fill that space. Although people on the bus talked, Moyles and his court of chuckling sycophants were always louder than our thoughts, no matter how low the radio was set; they were so loud that Moyles’ antics and opinions spilt out beyond that show into the world at large.
This was a time when Moyle’s thoughts were considered terrifically important; a time when he was treated as though he was powerful because, in a narrow and narcissistic way, he was. In the waning years of the analogue age, he’d been anointed as a gatekeeper and a tastemaker. His ‘jokes’ and tantrums were covered by the newspapers in minute detail and with slack-jawed credulousness.
In her review of Moyles’ first week in a prime time slot, Anne Karpf wrote in The Guardian on October 17 1998:
When and how did the British come to love the bigmouth? Famously in thrall to restraint, some time over the past five years Britain began to reward the self-applauders, those Chris Evanses, Julie Burchills and Jeanette Wintersons who proclaim their own greatness… … Moyles, an alumnus of this school, began his new Radio 1 afternoon show on Monday with the pronouncement that he is the saviour of afternoon radio. Hitherto Moyles, who ran Radio 1’s 4 am show, was famous chiefly for his endless comments about tits and other expressions of “cock-jockery”. He was a good argument for sleeping late. Now promoted, he managed to get through Monday's show with scarcely any mention of mammaries ("I can't be sexist any more") but by Tuesday he was back to a running gag about DJ Mary Anne Hobbs, and quoting as an endorsement Zoe Balls complaint about his obsession with breasts.
In the same review, Karpf predicted that “if Zoe Ball’s ratings [didn’t] stabilise or rise”, Moyles would take the breakfast show from her. She was almost right; Sara Cox replaced Ball in March 2000 but Moyles took over from her in 2004. But, so dominant was his presence at the station, I was convinced he had haunted at least some of my morning rides to school. He didn’t. I went to university in October 2002 and stopped getting the bus to school earlier that year, which meant I missed one of the grimmest incidents of Moyle’s career.
In February 2002, Moyles raised Charlotte Church’s upcoming birthday on his afternoon show — she was 15 at the time — and said he wanted to “lead her through the forest of sexuality now that she had reached 16.” Moyles was 28.
Complaints from listeners were considered by the Broadcasting Standards Commission (BSC)1. It said Moyles was “known for his near-the-knuckle approach” but concluded in July 2002 that "the explicit sexual content and humour had exceeded acceptable boundaries for the time of transmission".
Moyles experienced no professional consequences over the incident and joked about the commission’s ruling on air. In his time at Capital Radio — during which he feuded with the equally loathsome Neil ‘neither a doctor nor fox’ Fox — the BSC upheld a complaint about his “aggressive and sexually suggestive” comments to a young female caller. It’s called having form.
His Charlotte Church comments came in the context of a cultural environment where her ‘virginity’ — an ancient2 and deeply unhelpful concept that refuses to die — had been subject to a lot of public comment. A myth about that period persists: that The Sun ran a countdown clock until she was “legal”. It did not; instead, there were two standalone websites that salivated over the prospect and the newspapers reported on them.
The Internet Archive has snapshots of both sites and the Heresy Corner blog detailed back in 2012 how the Sun countdown clock came to be a ‘fact’. Giving evidence to the Leveson Inquiry in 2011, Church herself said The Sun was responsible for the clock, she said:
So basically it was on the Sun's website and it was a countdown clock, which I can't remember exactly how long it ran for but it ran for, I think, maybe more than a month, a countdown clock to my 16th birthday, basically with it the innuendo of the age of my passing of consent, where basically I could have sex and it was kind of a countdown until that date, which was a little bizarre… I was a 16-year-old girl and I was just really uncomfortable with it in general.
It’s understandable that Church believes the clock was made by The Sun; she was under incredible pressure in any one terms, let alone for a teenage girl, and saw a lot of unpleasant coverage about her over those years. In 2001, The Daily Star placed an outraged story about Chris Morris’ Brass Eye’s ‘Paedogeddon’ special (Perv Spoof Bosses Axe Wrestling) on the same spread as a leering item about Church (She’s a big girl now).
The first word — capitalised no less — was CHILD but the unbylined hack who ‘wrote’ the ‘story’ still noted: “…how quickly she [had] grown up after she turned up at a Hollywood bash looking chest swell”.
Over at The Daily Mail, its rage at Brass Eye (“Unspeakably sick!”) was preceded by images of Princesses Beatrice (then 13) and Eugenie (then 11) in bikinis.
And if Church had a clear memory of the countdown clock being referenced in a red top, she may have been thinking of The Daily Mirror. On 2 January 2002, the clock was picked as the paper’s “website of the day” (how quaint) by its internet columnist, Matt Kelly3, who wrote:
Should we be afraid of this website or treat it as a weird joke?
The address was printed regardless. Matt Kelly says he doesn’t think the address was published and that it was “website of the day”; while I have seen the clipping in the past I don’t have access to it right now. Either way, I don’t believe he covered the site for anything other than critical reasons. In December 2001, The Mirror ran a story headlined Charlotte in sick internet countdown about one of the clocks, describing it in the second mention as a “lewd internet countdown”.
In the first episode of Kathy Burke’s new two-part series Growing Up, Church talks about the clock story and Moyles’ comments:
Kathy Burke: When you were basically reaching puberty, that’s when they started writing about you differently. Charlotte Church: Yeah, there was just this sort of shift where I became fair game. Burke: Was it The Sun that did a countdown to your sixteenth because then you’d be able to lose your virginity? Church: Yeah, they have conveniently lost all records of that but it was definitely there because, you know, other media outlets picked up on it and then Chris Moyles on Radio One had commented on it.
At that point, the documentary cuts to a clip from The Charlotte Church Show. First broadcast in March 2007, she interviews Moyles and confronts him about the ‘virginity’ comments, all the while having to maintain a ‘jokey’ tone with a man who was, at that point, still the presenter of Radio One’s Breakfast Show with an audience of 8 million people.
The following dialogue comes after Moyles has repeatedly joked about being the real father of Church’s unborn baby and implied that she might not know for sure who she had conceived the child with (“It’s Gavin’s, yeah? … you have a tin of beans and you fart, you don’t know what bean it was do you?”):
Church: We haven’t always been so close. Do you remember why? Moyles: Well, yeah, but that was, that was, it wasn’t… err… Church: Why don’t you explain your behaviour, Chris? And stop babbling. Moyles: Once, you were young… quite young. And… and… it was coming… Church: How young? Moyles: You were under 16. Church: I’d call that 15. Moyles: Yeah, 15. But you were going to be 16. And I… I offered to take your virginity. [The audience laughs] Church: So, what exactly did you say? Moyles: Do you know… I actually, I think this is actually very sweet. [he turns to the audience, grinning] I offered to lead Charlotte ‘through the forest of her own sexuality’. Church: A 15-year-old girl. You should be ashamed. Moyles: No, no. You were 16! Church: I wasn’t. Moyles: You were! Church: I was 15. Moyles: Well, you told me you were 16! [The audience roars with laughter] Church: Err… anyway…
Earlier in the conversation, Church refers to doing karaoke with Moyles at her mum’s pub. It was a promotional event for his Christmas Day broadcast in 2005. His appearance on her chat show was a similar promotional commitment — he was there to plug a tour the Breakfast Show was doing at the time — and Church was well aware that he was still an important person in the music industry.
When she says “you should be ashamed”, the lacquer of promotional niceties cracks and you can see the anger beneath. Her career up to that point had been studded with these humiliations garlanded with tight smiles. Most famously, she told Leveson that she had been obliged to perform for free at Rupert Murdoch’s wedding to Wendy Deng in 1999 in return for the promise of “good press”.
The incident described took place over 19 years ago and under no circumstances would any similar language or behaviour be tolerated at the station in 2021.
Moyles mocked Will Young on the show by putting on an effeminate voice and singing a song about crossdressing in 2009 — that was 14 years ago for anyone at the BBC keeping count — and Young told The Times in August 2020 that:
It still makes me feel sad in a way, because it did affect how important I felt my sexuality was, and because I didn’t stand up for myself. So even though I was like, ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter,’ it did, actually. It was really bad. Really bad.
Young is still waiting for his apology. That’s not surprising given what Moyles wrote in his sort-of-memoir The Difficult Second Book (2007):
I’m not homophobic and I certainly do not promote homophobia. If you’ve got a problem with me using the word ‘gay’ to describe something as being a bit pants, then fair enough, but don’t accuse me of hating gay people… … A lot of stuff written about me is either untrue or taken out of context. Now, people who dislike me will say that I’m moaning, but I have a right to reply. So I go on the air and say that I’m getting annoyed at all the reports in the paper about me being homophobic. I explain that one person in particular has been using me to gain publicity and not once have they actually asked me about it directly.
That comes straight after a passage dismissing criticism of the moment during his interview with the actor Halle Berry when he did an impression of “a big, fat black guy” that prompted her to ask, “Are we having a racist moment?” Moyles waited until Berry had left the studio to mock her:
'Are we having a racist moment here?' Oh just get over yourself! What the hell was all that about? Seriously. I'm sure she's a lovely woman, but slightly defensive. It's very frustrating." Putting on the voice again he added: "'Are we having a bad interview here?' Yeah, I definitely think so. It's very disappointing, but oh well. I'll never see her again.
At the time, the BBC said: “There wasn't anything racist in what Chris said."
Earlier in 2009, Moyles discussed filming Who Do You Think You Are? on his show and said:
Unlike a lot of the Who Do You Think You Are? shows I didn't go to Auschwitz. Pretty much everyone goes there whether or not they're Jewish. They just seem to pass through there on their way to Florida.
Tim Davie, now Director General of the BBC, was Director of Audio and Music at the time. He was in the audience when Paul Gambaccini gave a lecture at Oxford University condemning Moyles’ comments about Young and said:
I find [Moyle’s] continual presence on Radio 1 unacceptable. [He] should be gone. His recent comments about Auschwitz involved real people and their ancestors. That is no joking matter for them. To encourage this or sit by whilst it happens is unprofessional. He has done it so many times. He has no sense of responsibility… … I am nauseated by the Radio 1 press office constantly rationalising his behaviour. If we do not get our own house in order, then sooner or later somebody else will and they might break the furniture in the process.
Davie delivered the vote of thanks to Gambaccini, said Moyles picking on people because of their sexuality was “not appropriate to broadcasting”, and mumbled that he had made his views on “taste” clear to Moyles face-to-face. In 2010, when Moyles went on a 30-minute on-air rant about his pay, Davie strenuously defended him, despite being name-checked:
It was a lively broadcast, he said he had a pretty rough morning, but that's what listeners expect from Moyles.
Moyles continued on the Breakfast Show for two more years and left at a time of his choosing, though he has obviously moaned about the circumstances frequently in the years since. In 2015, he resurfaced on Radio X, where he has remained aside for a stint on I’m A Celebrity…
There is a point to this ‘offence archaeology’ beyond reminding you about the specific grimness of the British media in the years of the Lad Mag Ascendency and what a terrible human Chris Moyles is and remains.
Church tells Burke in the documentary:
Of course, it wasn’t good [but] at least it was out in the open. That lads lads lads culture was prominent, it was very simplistic, it was unashamed and it was just out there. Whereas now, it’s somehow become a bit more underground and a bit more dangerous.
The tabloids and the BBC alike are keen to pretend that those days are over but Church is right; the unpleasantness has simply evolved. The creepiness remains as does the selective outrage. As I write, Gary Lineker is still being monstered for a tweet criticising a vile government policy while the Home Secretary who introduced the proposal is allowed to lunge for the moral high ground. Today, Pat Sharp was fired by Greatest Hits Radio after he joked about a woman’s breasts while compering a corporate event.
The same faces are still around: Moyles, comfortable on his show even as the things he said and did in his pernicious pomp still haunt others; Davie, risen from middle management mediocrity to the pinnacle of senior mediocrity.
The Charlotte Church countdown clock myth is resilient but the grim truths of that period are fading into memory, even as legal cases continue and the effects of narratives written then still reverberate today.
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The BSC was superseded by Ofcom in 2003.
I was going to write “medieval concept” here but I checked with the excellent Dr Eleanor Janega and she said it’s probably a much older idea. I heartily recommend her book The Once and Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women's Roles in Society
Now editor of The New European.