Thursday, 5 February 2009

Oh Golly

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

12 comments:

Dungeekin said...

I don't think the Sandringham thing is going to go away soon - I've heard HM the Queen is to be sacked from her post for racism.

D

valdemar squelch said...

I think you are, perhaps, a tad conservative to suggest Carol only inherited mummy's forthrightness. Remember her daddy's tendency to have a few snifters? That may have played a part.

One thing we don't know is the (here comes the dreaded C word) context of CT's remarks. Tone of voice, gesture, preamble, etc? Perhaps it was stupidly innocent, perhaps it something a bit nastier. But I agree there's something unpleasant about any kind of informer.

Perhaps the real lesson from all this is how paranoid BBC culture has become. And I wonder who might bear the ultimate responsibility for that? Not the Murdoch press and Paul Dacre? Not even a wee bit?

Matt said...

Can't agree with this one.

I think you forget that firstly, the television studio is a workplace, not a bar, and that second, these people are strangers, not friends.

Yes, it would be better to confront a friend about their behaviour, because to not do so would probably be seen as going against the principles of the friendship. However, is it really necessary to confront total strangers, in the company of other strangers, about inappropriate behaviour on fear of being labeled "Pathetic and childish"?

You owe a stranger nothing except behaving morally towards them; if their behaviour causes offense and you feel uncomfortable confronting them about, surely it is perfectly acceptable to report it to the appropriate person.

Which brings me back to this being a TV studio - a workplace - not a bar. If it were a bar, then it's a public place for the expression of free speech, but it wasn't. It took place in what is effectively an office, with an employee - Carol Thatcher - hosting guests.

So next time anyone's on a jaunt to an office being shown around with other strangers by an employee, and that employee makes a racially insensitive comment, ask yourself, is the appropriate action to confront them there an then, or is it to report the incident to your or their manager. And if you choose the latter, does that make you "Pathetic and childish"?

The Heresiarch said...

Well, Matt, you'll have no trouble fitting into Nanny's brave new world.

CT was employed as a "roving reporter" for the show. Chiles was the presenter. Even if they weren't close friends, it's safe to say they weren't total strangers. Chiles and Brand aren't seventeen year old interns, either.

A society in which we must all be so cowed that we sit in embarrassment when someone says something "inappropriate" and then go sneaking to the boss isn't one I want to live in. If you're unwilling or unable to confront those who are older, more senior or more dominant personalities then, of course, there should be mechanisms to deal with it. But that wasn't remotely the case here. The idea of Jo Brand being scared of Carol Thatcher strikes me as being more than a little ridiculous.

Wasp_Box said...

"Inappropriate" is a real weasel word isn't it? It doesn’t really say anything but exudes the air of a primary school teacher talking to a naughty child.

Incidentally, The One Show covered the thorny topic of religion yesterday. Here’s their carefully reasoned presentation:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00hd49m/The_One_Show_03_02_2009/?src=a_syn31

From about 1:30 onwards. Robert Winston didn’t exactly cover himself in glory.

Matt said...

Don't get me wrong, for the most part I'm not bothered about this kind of thing. For instance, I think the fuss about Ross and Brand was ridiculous, because in that case, the ultimate subject (sex with someone's granddaughter) is innocuous - or at least should be - after all, we've all probably had sex with someone's granddaughter.

In this case though, the subject is a serious one and far from innocuous, even if the particular incident was more misguided and inappropriate than conscious and malicious.

Personally I'd have said nothing, just made a mental note that the speaker is evidently a half-wit to not realise that offense could be caused in that environment.

I'm glad you accept the argument that not everyone would be able to confront a person in this sort of situation, and I agree that the idea of Jo Brand being afraid is amusing; but that doesn't *necessarily* mean that there was some childish intent.

Just because Brand is opinionated, doesn't mean that she would necessarily be comfortable making a scene in front of strangers. And even if she did, is it likely Thatcher would have apologized? And if she hadn't apologised and a scene *had* ensued isn't there the possibility of worse repercussions?

That's a lot of questions and variables to how else this could have worked out. But it's precisely because of those unknown variables that - especially in the situation of a workplace (a point of mine you didn't address)- there are correct procedures to follow in order to address such things; procedures that make sure contentious issues are addressed in a civil fashion, rather than a potentially confrontational one.

That all said, I don't think the end result of the procedure in this case was necessarily just or fair any more than I think the treatment of Ross and Brand was just or fair. But that won't stop me defending the sanity of having formal ways of going about things in the workplace, which are there to protect everyone's behinds.

Anonymous said...

This item is not going away until the next bbc serial blunder, which could be tomorrow the way the bbc "leadership" is making decisions.
Listen to the full Jay Hunt interview on the Today Programme of yesterday and you quickly realise that she is a major part of the problem, not the solution.
Hope she is not married and has children - they could end up even more PC and warped than she is.
The 2 people who will most suffer on this issue is Brand and Chiles because the public (the other person from an NGO is not named) now know they come from the loony PC double standards brigade.

mogsmar5 said...

It is difficult commenting on an issue for which we have only a few differing accounts, but I have to concede with Matt in that both Brand and Charles followed the correct procedures. Presumably they would not have done so if they had not already raised the issue to some extent with Thatcher and been unsatisfied with her answer. Whether or not they did actually raise the issue with her is anybody's guess

cramerj said...

You are a pathetic lot.
Must inform on anyone that says something that might upset someone black or brown etc.
Don't worry about the whites because thay will be made institutionally meek or else.

Matt said...

Racism against whites does exist, but the reason it's not so prominent is that it's mainly "proper" personal racism where the white person is discriminated against, not headline-making "PC" racism.

The reason for this is that racism against black people was, for a long time, a major cultural phenomena, and has thus produced huge amounts of cultural references, diction, phrases, and ideas, just like the "oh golly a black man!"-implying golliwog.

Conversely, there is a dearth of cultural references around white-targeted racism because it was never an institutionalized cultural phenomena. If one was to try to think of an equivalent, I suppose the nearest one could get would be if a black employee was to comment to another group of black employees that a white man with a funny hat looked like "a KKK member".

Again, IMO, if one of the employees guests who did not personally know the employee was to find that offensive, and wished to do so, they would be perfectly justified in later going to the employer and letting them know about that sort of inappropriate behaviour in the workplace.

What we have here, is a clear case of the rampant over-reaction to *anything* seen as PC. Yes, there's some ridiculous PC stuff out there, but that doesn't mean that all "PC" is bad or wrong.

Since racism is largely contained in Britain, it's fair to say we've already historically had over-reaction to the imbalance from black groups and culture where the scales tipped too far. Black pride it's an example; something that was needed for the group to address the imbalance, yet which itself is technically racist, since in reality race itself is an imaginary concept - a social construction. Now - bizarrely, we have yet more over-reaction, this time the other way again with the anti-PCers.

When will the seesaw stop bouncing?

Chris said...

The people who need firing (in the sense of 'setting light to') are the ones who think 'fulsome' means 'full,' rather than 'nauseatingly flattering.'

Anonymous said...

"And if you choose the latter, does that make you "Pathetic and childish"?"

no. it makes you a grass.