Now that I’m back from a period of rest and recuperation I thought I’d try to get back into the swing of things by posting a few short items about things I found interesting in the papers. One item today caught my eye as it touches on a theme I’ve addressed before: Freedom of speech, and its limits.
This story concerns sports presenter Clare Balding who is apparently presenting a new TV series called Britain by Bike. I don’t know much about her or the new series, but it was reviewed last week in the Sunday Times by a person by the name of AA Gill who referred to her as
…the dyke on a bike, puffing up the nooks and crannies at the bottom end of the nation
Not very nice at all. I’m not linking to the original article (a) because it’s behind a paywall and (b) because I don’t want to send the Evil Empire of Murdoch any traffic. You can find the gist of it in a story at the Guardian.
I didn’t know that Clare Balding is a lesbian, but then there’s no reason why I should have thought about her sexuality as it’s not at all relevant to her job. Apparently she is quite open about and comfortable with her orientation, but the obviously pejorative reference to the word “dyke” got her understandably riled. She complained to the Sunday Times editor, a nasty piece of work called John Witherow, who replied
In my view some members of the gay community need to stop regarding themselves as having a special victim status and behave like any other sensible group that is accepted by society.Not having a privileged status means, of course, one must accept occasionally being the butt of jokes. A person’s sexuality should not give them a protected status.
Clare Balding was unhappy with the response, saying
This is not about me putting up with having the piss taken out of me, something I have been quite able to withstand, it is about you legitimising name calling. ‘Dyke’ is not shouted out in school playgrounds (or as I’ve had it at an airport) as a compliment, believe me..
The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual’s race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.
There’s no denying that the word “dyke” is a pejorative term for a lesbian so one would imagine that this will be an open-and-shut case. Note also that the response from John Witherow explicitly refuses to accept the terms of article 12. Whether he likes it or not, sexual orientation is specifically protected in the Editor’s Code of Practice to which he is a signatory. John Witherow probably thinks so little of this code that he hasn’t even read it. If he is exonerated it will prove beyond any doubt that the Editor’s Code of Practice is simply a sham.
Whether the right to free speech should be bounded by law is a topic that has come up several times on this blog, including one very recent example and one rather older which has direct parallels with the Clare Balding complaint. I think it is right that this matter should be dealt with outside the law courts. Gill’s comment may be nasty but I don’t think such things should be regarded as criminal, unless they are clearly intended to harrass. If, for example, he’d screamed the word dyke through her letterbox, I think that would be a criminal matter.
However, the problem with voluntary “codes of conduct” such as this – including those that form part of certain employment contracts – is that they usually amount to nothing other than window-dressing, at least when it comes to sexual orientation. The word “dyke” is as offensive to a lesbian as the word “faggot” is to a gay man, but cases involving these words are rarely taken as seriously as those involving racial or gender-based terms. Can you imagine the outcry if AA Gill had used the word “nigger” or “paki” in a review?
Mentioning “sexual orientation” in a list isn’t the same as taking the related prejudice seriously or trying to something about it. The fact of the matter is that lesbians and gay men may be more accepted in society now than they were twenty years ago, but there are still many walks of life in which this is not the case. In fact, I think the depressing reality is that the vast majority of heterosexual people simply don’t like homosexual people and resent their apparent “acceptance”. You can argue about the rights and wrongs of “politically correct language”, but the problem it is trying to address in this case is very real and it is often the only thing that prevents overt abuse, as indeed it is with racist abuse.
Having said that, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the Sunday Times gets away with this clear violation of the PCC code. It would just be another example of gross hypocrisy to add to the many that already demonstrate that political correctness is a very thin veneer. Far better, in my view, to dispense with the code of practice altogether if this happens than keep it there and openly flout it. At least then we’d all know where we really stand.