Two quotes from BBC 1 controller Jay Hunt's interview on the Today programme this morning explaining why Carol Thatcher had been sacked from a current affairs magazine show for using the word "golliwog" off air.
"Jonathan was suspended for his behaviour, but he understood that he had caused offence and he apologised."
"What is sad about the whole situation is that we have given Carol ample opportunity to apologise for offence... She felt unable to do so."
How old are Jonathan and Carol, do you suppose? If I wasn't aware of the background and the context of these quotes, I'd have to guess they were around ten. Too young to have a sip of wine without their parents being tutted at by the Chief Medical Officer, in any event.
I don't want to get into the rights and wrongs of the word "golliwog". It seems perfectly clear to me that the golliwog, as a toy and as a caricature, has had its day. Like the Black and White minstrel show, it belongs to a time of casual racism that could often be (though it wasn't always) innocent and, in its way, rather charming. It was a stereotype based, not on proximity and contempt, but on exoticism, unfamiliarity and a sort of affection, not for black people in general or in particular, but for an idealised - far too idealised - notion of the American South. For many British people, it also brings to mind jam and marmalade - it too Robertson's an unconscionably long time (2001!) to remove the Golly from the side of their jars.
It goes without saying, though, that many black people find the stereotype offensive, and that may in itself be enough. It does not, however, follow that the word is racist (people are racist, words are just words), or that the golliwog doll is racist; still less than someone using the word in a casual context is necessarily being racist. Although they could be, of course. The fact that golliwogs are still on sale - even at Sandringham, we now learn - suggests that the case against them is not conclusively made. It's possible, I suppose, that some people who collect golliwogs do so because they enjoy the racial caricature; but I suspect most are people who still look upon it with innocent eyes as a harmless toy. I'm not aware if any scientific research has been carried out as to whether a liking for golliwogs carries with it, or even provokes, negative images about black people. We should always be careful, in any case, about accusing people of racism merely for using that particular word.
A number of photographs of the tennis player involved have been produced, in a few of which his hair (though nothing else) does bear a passing resemblance to the benighted toy. So the likelihood is that the brain of Carol Thatcher is rather too closely connected to her mouth. It was a crass remark, even a stupid one - the kind of thing one can easily imagine her much-missed father saying in a golf club bar. But, without knowing the context, it is impossible to judge whether it was racist in tone or intention. More likely it was just insensitive; the idea behind it being "the way he has his hair makes him look like a golliwog" rather than "he looks like a golliwog because he's black, and all black people look like golliwogs".
Be that as it may I'd like to focus instead on the way in which this affair was handled internally.
A brief resumé. We are told that the remark was made in a green room, that there were around a dozen people present, and that at least two - presenter Adrian Chiles and comedian Jo Brand - were offended by it. One, or both, of these subsequently complained to the executive producer. According to Hunt, "they decided to raise it with the executive producer and make it completely clear that they did not think it was an appropriate way for someone who was being employed by the BBC at the time to speak in what was effectively a public space". As a result, the producer (Tessa Finch) approached Carol Thatcher and demanded a "fulsome" apology. The apology was either not forthcoming, or was insufficiently abject. It was therefore decided to drop her from subsequent shows.
The first thing that occurs to me is that whoever grassed Thatcher up was a snivelling coward. While Hunt maintains that Chiles and Brand were mightily offended by the remark, it's not clear if either of them went so far as to confront her; Thatcher's agent Ali Gunn said in a radio interview that nobody objected to the conversation at the time. Since both of these professional performers happen to be white, their taking offence is unlikely to be personal. At most, what offended them was the reminder that people still exist who use the word "golliwog" in casual conversation. But I suspect they weren't "offended" - though they were, perhaps, surprised or even shocked. Finding something to be "offensive" is an intellectual response, not an emotional one.
Because of the history of the word and the politically incorrect nature of the rag doll it signifies it is perfectly reasonable that they should find it objectionable. What is less reasonable is that experienced broadcasters of mature years should think that the best they can do is to go running off to teacher saying, in effect, "Miss! Miss! She said a rude word! She said golliwog, miss! Carol's been naughty!"
Did they even warn her what they were going to do ("I'm going to report you to teacher!") or did they just snitch on her when she wasn't looking? I don't know - but I repeat, why didn't they simply have it out with Thatcher then and there? Are they not big enough or confident enough in their own opinions to deal with the incident on their own without backup from someone in "authority"? Their behaviour is pathetic and childish. But also, of course, entirely in tune with the attitudes of BBC management, who were doubtless delighted, after the debacle of Ross and Brand, to be seen to take a firm line on "inappropriate conduct".
We come now to the schoolmistressy tones of Jay Hunt, as heard on the radio this morning. Here's another sampling:
The following day the executive producer of the show approached Carol to make it clear that she had caused offence to a number of people ... and the BBC deemed this language to be completely inappropriate and racist and wanted to know how she wanted to respond to this. Over the past few days we have given Carol ample opportunity to offer a fulsome and unconditional apology for the offence that she caused to those individuals and to the wider production team who were offended by what she said and she has chosen not to do so. She still maintains that this was a comment made in jest.
(Hunt, incidentally, used the terms "appropriate" or "inappropriate" eight times in the course of the interview and "racist" only once.)
Two main points arise from this. Take, first, the twofold nature of Carol Thatcher's speech crime: she had (1) caused offence and (2) the BBC deemed her language to be "inappropriate".
If you define "offensive" to mean "capable of giving offence", then almost anything is potentially offensive. There are people who find the expression "nitty gritty" to be racially offensive on the basis of a hoax etymology that connects it with slave transportation. Other people are offended by the use of words like "fuck" or "Jesus Christ" on the TV. And there are people who are offended by words such as "cripple", or by Barbie dolls. It cannot be, then, that being offended is in itself a cause for complaint; rather, what is relevant is that the word or attitude is deemed offensive when measured against a currently prevailing standard. Those standards change: not so long ago, reference to gay sex were generally deemed offensive; now it is homophobia that offends. Whether this is moral progress, moral collapse or moral relativity is a moot point - suffice it to say that standards shift; but not everyone shifts together.
In such a kaleidoscopic moral landscape there will be areas of grey; doubt in the minds of individuals as to whether a word is unsayable or merely "daring", but doubt too about the universal applicability of standards. Only when everyone in the culture (or nearly everyone) accepts that a certain word is taboo can a line be drawn, and even then not eternally and absolutely. The last person to say "nigger" on national TV, and the first person to say "fuck", were both of them inviting censure and outrage. It's doubtful whether "Golliwog" yet falls into such a category, for reasons alluded to above; but there are clearly people who think it does, and they include whoever it is who decides what is "appropriate" on BBC premises.
The Mail thinks the BBC attitude is evidence of political correctness. And so it is, but not in the paper's simplistic sense that in "the warped world of the BBC - in which terrorists are 'freedom fighters', love of country is 'bias' and truth lies permanently to the Left of centre - there is no crime more evil than saying anything that might be interpreted as a slur on a racial or sexual minority." No; this is not a problem of right-on ideological poses so much as "political correctness" as a procedure - a bureaucratic, charmless, text-bound rigidity of behaviour, a complete lack of perspective. Once a procedure is set in motion it must be followed, however absurd, time-wasting or disproportionate.
Carol Thatcher's real crime, it transpires, was not to have used the term "golliwog" within the earshot of the school sneak, whether it was Jo Brand or Adrian Chiles. It was her unwillingness to play the game. The BBC likes nothing better than a show trial, in which the sinner repents and - after a reasonable degree of ritual humiliation - is welcomed back into the fold. The drama is played out according to fixed rules: the offence, followed by confession and repentance, followed by magnanimity on the part of the bosses who announce that it is time to "move on". Like the Holy Inquisition, the BBC demands an acknowledgement of sin. The religious parallel is perhaps not far-fetched. In the confessional, the priest has the power to grant absolution; the power comes from the church and, the theory goes, ultimately from God. The BBC appeals to its (increasingly implausible) status as guardian of the national conscience. But the procedure is even more closely parallel with the treatment meeted out to recalcitrant schoolchildren. You will stand up in Assembly and you will apologise to the whole school.
Most of the time, the chosen scapegoat is a willing accomplice in this trite morality play - because unless the offence is truly grave, or causes a national outcry (something conspicuously lacking here, unlike Ross/Brand), they know that an apology will be accepted and the incident forgotten. That the whole procedure is humiliating, placing the miscreant in the role of a naughty child, is of less moment than the financial implications of continued disobedience. Occasionally, though, a bluff is called. I don't think one need take seriously the Mailesque conspiracy theory that BBC bosses took particular delight in scalping a member of the Thatcher family. But the Thatcher genes matter in another sense. Like her mother at some European summit, Carol couldn't see why she should have to go along with such nonsense. Well, she knows now.
We're sorry to have to tell you that Carol has been excluded from the school. It's for her own good.
Picture credit: Pammy