The Balding Version

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..

She has now made the matter to the Press Complaints Commission under article 12 of its Editor’s Code of Practice, which states

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.

27 Responses to “The Balding Version”

  1. That is a very well thought out post, thanks for being a sane voice.

  2. Nothing new from AA Gill. He once described the Welsh as “loquacious, dissemblers, immoral liars, stunted, bigoted, dark, ugly, pugnacious little trolls”. I think he’s a person with no friends looking for attention.

  3. telescoper Says:

    It’s interesting that his wikipedia page describes such comments as “satire”. Perhaps he’s a living spoof of a journalist?

    Makes me glad I don’t read the Sunday Times.

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    I read Witherow’s comment on the BBC website and agreed factually with it, although I could not tell whether it was an appropriate reply to Clare Balding because the BBC did not quote any of Gill’s comments. Now that I have read the sentence from Gill (above), I find it obvious that the Sunday Times should not have published this insult, and that Witherow’s reply was inappropriate: an apology was in order.

    Meanwhile, Balding tweeted that “I don’t mind being referred to as a lesbian. I am, for God’s sake, but don’t use it as a stick to beat me with. RANT OVER.” Anybody reading this would think she had taken no further action, yet she lodged a complaint with the PCC. There are things that are wrong that shouldn’t be banned, and insults are included. They always reflect badly on the perpetrator; it is a truism that any debate is won by the person whose opposite number resorts to personal insults. Personally, I try to regard being insulted (not unusual when I mention my faith) as an exercise in forgiveness – a neglected quality today, to society’s great detriment. We are moving toward the ghastly prospect of a society in which everything is either compulsory or forbidden, with draconian enforcement.


    PS May the Murdoch paywall soon crumble!

  5. Anton Garrett Says:

    Peter: I didn’t know that the PCC Code of Practice was voluntary. Of course it was probably signed on behalf of the Sunday Times by a predecessor to Witherow, but he would have known that at the time he accepted the job. If he thinks it is an intolerable constraint, he should say so openly rather rthan publish unpleasantries that flout it.

    I wonder what percentage the Times *expected* to lose – hopefully less than they did. Murdoch would like others to follow suit. Everybody else is hoping not. The internet is a community that freely gives as well as freely takes – look at Wikipedia.


  6. telescoper Says:


    I agree about the PCC code. I’d rather papers just abandoned it than merely paid lip-service like they seem to be doing. Hypocrisy does nobody any good. I actually don’t mind people writing what they think as long as they don’t pretend to be better than they are. I don’t read the Sunday Times anyway.And I only take the Observer because it has a better crossword…

    The paywall thing is very interesting because it marks uncharted waters for the newspaper industry. A point which is perhaps worth making about newspapers is that the cover price of a printed paper is only a part of the income of the publisher. Advertising makes up the rest. For most papers advertising accounts for at least 50% of income.

    An interesting calculation has then to be made. Advertisers are more likely to place adverts in magazines with higher circulation figures, so do you cut the cover price to boost circulation and increase advertising or increase the cover price and cope with less advertising? The answer depends on the elasticity of the market, i.e. how much sales are influenced by changes in price. Many decades of experience have taught the newspaper industry what this is for print media.

    For online editions, they’re so new that nobody really knows what the elasticity is and you consequently find businesses trying experimental strategies. Most newspaper companies seem to have thought that their online editions could turn in a profit without charging at all because they would attract plenty of advertising revenue. This hasn’t happened, at least partly because of the recession. That’s what seems to be behind the Times wanting to charge readers of its online edition, with the apparent result that most readers have deserted it, but whether this is a stable situation remains to be seen.

    My own view is that the internet will see the end of traditional publishing. What will replace it I don’t know, but I hope wikipedia is a model. Only a few years ago wikipedia was hopeless, but it’s now a marvellous resource. When the paywalls come down, freedom to speak and write can do wonderful things.


  7. telescoper Says:


    The issue (at least in my mind) is not whether insults such as this should be banned by law. They are not and should not be (in my opionion). What matters is that the Sunday Times is a signatory to a code of conduct that commits it not to allow such things to be printed. Fair enough if it decides not to commit to the PCC Code of Practice, but if it signs up and at the same time flouts it there’s nothing other than hypocrisy going on. That was the point I was trying to make.

    I haven’t signed up to any code of practice so can say what I like, even about Australia.


    P.S. Apparently the Times et al have lost 90% of their online readership since putting the paywall in place.

  8. have you read cory doctorow on copyright etc?

  9. John Peacock Says:


    I’m sympathetic to the Balding complaint, although I do wonder what the best response is to such boorishness. So frequently, modern journalism is viciously destructive, and people get picked on in all sorts of ways, not necessarily sexual orientation. I tend to the view that you don’t want to give bullies the satisfaction of knowing that they have wounded you: it’s just likely to encourage them.

    As for paywalls, I hold inconsistent views. I buy a paper grauniad most days, so I am clearly prepared to pay for quality journalism (and much more than any paywall would probably charge). Why should one’s attitute change when the same information is in online rather than paper form? And yet it does make a difference: I don’t like the idea of the web degenerating into BUPA rather than the present NHS. But if online has to stay free, how will good things like the grauniad survive? I buy a paper because I am old and set in my ways, and because the dog likes a morning walk: this isn’t going to sustain them in the long run.

  10. telescoper Says:


    Yes, I think you have a point. The easy answer is not to read the Sunday Times (or the Mail, or the Express or the…) but it’s a sad fact that enough people will carry on buying them whatever dross they serve up. My point wasn’t so much about what AA Gill wrote, however, but that the PCC Code just isn’t worth the candle. I’d rather have the complete anarchy of an uncensored internet than the institutionalised hypocrisy that we’re offered right now.

    I am such a sad person that my primary motivation for buying a newspaper is the crossword. Hence I buy the Guardian and Observer at the weekend for the competition puzzles which I always post off when completed and then, and only then, do I read the rest of the paper. I don’t bother to buy it during the week, unless I’m travelling – a newspaper is a perfect companion for train journey. But will it remain so when we all have decent electronic devices to read the content? Kindles and iPads aren’t quite there yet, but it’s just a question of time.

    What news media need to do to survive is strike the right balance between advertising revenue and price. It took the print medium many years to get that right so it’s no surprise the industry doesn’t know what to do at the moment. The problem is that if they don’t get it right soon, all that we can find will be owned by Murdoch.


  11. Anton Garrett Says:

    Phillip: It is something to argue that “copyright instituted a creative democracy”. If only it were so simple: the USA could then pass copyright laws in Iraq and all would be well…

    I accept that this is one component of a creative deomocracy, but you often find that the creative writers of the past were not exactly wealthy men, but driven men who sacrificed other areas of their lives to their work. And it has a downside, as mentioned often on this blog: Why should I surrender copyrioght in my scientific research to some shark with a press and a publicity machine? After all, I *wrote* it – it is indelibly mine in the way that a painting is the artist’s.

    When I was young my parents took the Guardian, partly because of its historical link with Manchester (where I am from). They were both teachers/lecturers and found its stance on education increasingly unrealistic in the late 1960s and defected to the Telegraph, which I read for a while thereafter. The first year or two of the Independent was a glory, but it went downhill. Nowadays I don’t read any paper regularly, but buy occasional issues on the basis of the content, such as last Monday’s Guardian with an in-depth summary of the Wikileak about the war in Afghanistan.


  12. Anton Garrett Says:

    Phillip: Without necessarily disagreeing, can you name some important books which clearly would not have been published had the author not been able to derive a living from them?

  13. Anton Garrett Says:

    “I think that the vast majority of books would not have been written if the sales provided no income to the authors.”

    Yes, and the vast majority of books are crap. Good books are not written for money – they are written because the author feels that he or she has something to say. Income accruing is a bonus.


  14. telescoper Says:

    I think this is even more true of poetry. Even great poets such as T.S. Eliot and Philip Larkin had to work for a living, but wrote poetry because they wanted to. In fact very few fiction writers actually earn a living from their work. There are exceptions, of course; J.K. Rowling became immensely rich from the Harry Potter books and there are many wealthy writers of the sort of stuff you find in airport bookshops. But most writers probably do it because they want to write rather than because they want to make money…

  15. Anton Garrett Says:

    Would Eliot and Larkin have been the poets that they were if they had not had jobs that caused them to interact with people?

  16. telescoper Says:

    I can’t answer that, but their jobs gave both of them steady income and gave them time to indulge their creativity on the side. Larkin was a librarian so presumably he had free access to whatever books he wanted to; Eliot worked at Lloyds for a time and then at publishers Faber & Faber, which brought him into contact with many writers. As far as I know, both were comfortable enough financially for most of their lives.
    I don’t know many poets personally (!) so I don’t know how gregarious they are nor how much they need to interact with others for inspiration. It is a tough trade, though, and I’m sure it’s not easy to do if you have to spend your working day down a coalmine. I guess many poets of earlier generations had to rely on private income or generous patrons…

  17. Anton Garrett Says:

    Furthermore, if you really want the world to read what you have written then you would do better not to charge for it. Dave Mackay negotiated deals with two major academic presses to sell his books on information theory and on the coming energy crunch at sensible prices, and with clauses per,mitting him to put the text on his website for free, so that you paid only if you wanted a professionally bound copy (which I did, of one of the books).

  18. telescoper Says:

    Talking of which, the English edition of Cosmology: A Very Short Introductionhas now sold >20,000 copies!!

  19. telescoper Says:

    Who’s criticising? I was just pointing out that not all writers do it for the money.

  20. Anton Garrett Says:

    Ditto. I agree with Phillip’s comments (a) and (b), and am simply making an old point that it is better to give than to receive…

  21. Garret Cotter Says:

    Hi Peter,

    I’m completely behind you on the subject of Gill’s nasty name-calling. But it prompts me to mention something which I was reluctant to at the time – your own piece about Simon Jenkins where you freely refer to paranoid delusions, padded cells, men in white coats, etc. Please spare a thought for those of us with severe and enduring mental illnesses, for whom such things are very real and very frightening.

    Is there clear blue water between calling an individual by a demeaning term, and using terms that perpetuate stigma in a satirical situation? I admit it’s probably murky. But spare a thought.

    Best, as always,


  22. telescoper Says:


    I take your point and I’ve been chided for the Simon Jenkins piece by several other people too, as well as other things I’ve written that people have found offensive for various reasons.

    Your point about mental illness is of course a valid one. I didn’t really think about it as I wrote the piece. I wouldn’t have written it if I’d thought Simon Jenkins was actually mentally ill. But that isn’t really a strong defence as I did exploit that idea in a mocking way. I can only say that at the time I felt his wilful stupidity desevered a sharp riposte. I certainly didn’t intend to mock the mentally ill. Maybe I went too far. Some think so. I apologise if you think I did.

    Whether it’s wrong to mock someone for simply being stupid is another question that came up here recently, of course..

    However, the main point I was trying to make in the current piece, however, was about the hypocrisy of signing up to a code of conduct and then simply ignoring it. I’m not covered by the PCC Code of Conduct and therefore can say whatever I like on here (although I’d be in trouble if I brought my employer into disrepute or committed an offence against the civil or criminal law). My editorial control of myself is very limited, and
    one reason I’ve kept the comments facility going is to give people the chance to tell me off when I transgress.


    P.S. Mental illness is also in fact specifically mentioned in the PCC code of conduct as you can see above.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      “Whether it’s wrong to mock someone for simply being stupid is another question that came up here recently…”

      Of course it is. A key moment in the life of Thomas Arnold, the great reformer of the 19th century ‘public’ schools (one shudders to think what they must have been like beforehand), was when, as a young tutor at another school before Rugby, he scolded a slow learner. The boy answered: “Why do you speak angrily, sir? Indeed am doing the best that I can.” Arnold never forgot the comment.

      However, I think that the councillor who tweeted about Scientologists being “stupid,” to which you link above, used the wrong word.


      • telescoper Says:

        I agree, and think I said as much in a comment on that item. In particular, anyone teaching should know that it is their job to help students learn and if someone is doing their best but not understanding then it’s at least partly the teacher’s fault. Often it’s frustration that makes teachers take it out on those who are slower to learn, but that’s not an excuse.

        “Stupid” is a word that can mean various things in various contexts. The meaning that our friend the Tweeter probably intended was “showing lack of reason or judgement” or “foolish”, words that are often applicable to highly intelligent people.

  23. Garret Cotter Says:


    Oh of course you’re absolutely right about the PCC being the main point at issue in the Balding case, and that a blog post in the anarchic cyberworld are in a very different category. As a matter of fact I enjoyed almost all of your Simon Jenkins piece very much. I think it’s good to have a chance to let off steam, much as one might do over a beer in the pub, with people who in pre-internet days one would have rare or no contact with.

    It was only point about mental illness that concerned me and I must admit that it didn’t directly trouble me _at the time_, and I do myself often try to use humour as a defence. But there are times when I would find it very upsetting. It just gave me a bit of a shiver.

    Anyway to use the virtual pub analogy maybe I’m just raising an eyebrow
    over my pint and saying “Careful there Peter, that’s a bit touchy”. Something which seems to happen to me quite frequently in any case.
    Except people don’t call me Peter.


  24. Just a quick update. Today the Press Complaints Commission upheld Clare Balding’s complaint against A.A. Gill.

    While the commentator is clearly entitled to his opinion about both the programme and the complainant, there are restraints placed upon him by the terms of the editors’ code [of the PCC].

    Clause 12 is very clear that newspapers must avoid prejudicial, pejorative or irrelevant reference to an individual’s sexual orientation and the reference to Miss Balding plainly breached its terms.

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