WorldCon 2014, to be held in August in London, announced earlier today that British comedian, talk-show host and celebrity Jonathan Ross will be acting as Master of Ceremonies for the Hugo Award Ceremony. An extraordinarily negative reaction to this decision followed via Twitter and Facebook, resulting in Ross withdrawing before I even had time to finish writing this blog post.
For those not in the know, Jonathan Ross is probably our closest equivalent to an American interviewer like Jay Leno or Conan O'Brien. His Saturday night ITV chat show pulls in 3 million viewers a week or more. Ross is also noted for his geek-friendly views. He is a big fan of TV shows such as Game of Thrones and has championed things like anime, video games and horror movies which other TV commentators would not touch with a bargepole. Ross is also married to scriptwriter Jane Goldman, who co-wrote the movies Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class and Stardust, and has himself written several comic books.
However, the controversy stems from Ross's brand of comedy, which is often confrontational and relies on stereotypes. His humour has been categorised as sexist and occasionally borderline racist (most notably making remarks about the differing skin colours of Madonna and an adopted baby, to her face). Most famously, Ross and fellow comedian Russell Brand got into serious trouble for leaving sexist jokes about the granddaughter of actor Andrew Sachs on his answerphone during a radio show, although they both later apologised. Some of Ross's comments to female guests on his talk show also rely on crude sexual humour a bit too often (one interview with Gwyneth Paltrow in particular seemed to devolve into rather unpleasant sexist jokes quite quickly).
In the interests of balance, Jonathan Ross has also stood up for equal rights in the past: during his BBC morning radio chat show, he made scathing comments about the BBC's lack of ethnic representation amongst its television and radio presenters, comments that could have cost him his job.
For the purposes of hosting the Hugo Awards, I can understand why LonCon decided it'd be a good idea to employ Ross (though it should be noted that he is not being paid). Ross is a huge, bona fide celebrity. It'd raise the profile of the Hugos and Worldcon in the UK more than almost anything else would, and would ensure wider newspaper and television coverage. Ross is certainly one of us, as his personal, extensive collection of vintage toys, games and comics should attest. But he's also a divisive comedian, one whose humour seems to rely too much on belittling others, often on the grounds of gender or sexuality; almost certainly not from some deep-seated prejudice, but more a lazy reliance on obvious sources of humour.
With the other battles SFF fandom is fighting at the moment in trying to make the genre fairer and more inclusive, this was never going to be a popular choice. Indeed, it is impressive how this decision unified almost everyone against it, with multiple fans, authors, editors and attendees suggesting they would boycott the convention and demand refunds if it went ahead with Ross in place. Indeed, one of LonCon's own committee members had already resigned over the issue. Charles Stross also pointed out that inviting someone whom the tabloids are actively trying to attack at every turn is a bad idea regardless of anything else they may say or do.
Even before I finished writing this blog post, LonCon announced that Ross had withdrawn from hosting the event. This is not surprising given the response on social media. However, I think the original idea of getting a well-known, high-profile celebrity to do the job was the right one. I'd love to see someone like Charlie Brooker (an increasingly high-profile British TV personality and writer of the critically-acclaimed Black Mirror SF series), Mark Gatiss (an actor/writer/director/producer on numerous SF projects) or, indeed, Jane Goldman, do the job. It'll be interesting to see who the replacement is.