In late July, Sunday Times columnist A. A. Gill said the following about television presenter Clare Balding:
Some time ago, I made a cheap and frankly unnecessary joke about Clare Balding looking like a big lesbian. And afterwards somebody tugged my sleeve to point out that she is a big lesbian, and I felt foolish and guilty. So I’d like to take this opportunity to apologise. Sorry.
Now back to the dyke on a bike, puffing up the nooks and crannies at the bottom end of the nation.
Naturally taking offence to such an insult, Miss Balding wrote to the editor of the Sunday Times, John Witherow, who replied with the following:
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. Jeremy Clarkson, perhaps the epitome of the heterosexual male, is constantly jeered at for his dress sense (lack of), adolescent mind-set and hair style.
He puts up with it as a presenter’s lot and in this context I hardly think that AA Gill’s remarks were particularly ‘cruel’, especially as he ended by so warmly endorsing you as a presenter.
As you can imagine, Miss Balding wasn’t happy with Witherow’s reply and responded by saying:
When the day comes that people stop resigning from high office, being disowned by their families, getting beaten up and in some instances committing suicide because of their sexuality, you may have a point.
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.
It may be your job to defend your writer and your editorial team but if you really think that homophobia does not exist and was not demonstrated beyond being ‘the butt of a joke’ then we have a problem.
It was then that Miss Balding lodged a complaint with the Press Complaints Commission under Clause 12 of the Editor’s Code of Practice, which states that:
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.
Today, the PCC has ruled in Balding’s favour, censuring Mr Gill and the Sunday Times. They said the use of the word “dyke” was discriminatory and a “pejorative synonym relating to the complainant’s sexuality”.
In a statement about the ruling, the PCC’s director, Stephen Abell, said:
Freedom of expression is a key part of an open society and something which the commission has defended robustly in the past.
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.
The PCC’s ruling in Miss Balding’s favour was almost certainly down to the fact that Balding’s complaint was first-party as she was the target of Mr Gill’s comments. But the PCC isn’t very effective when dealing with third-party complaints, as proved recently when they refused to take on The Sun for using the word “bender”.
This is definitely good news for Miss Balding and proof that the PCC does still have a purpose. But one wonders when the PCC will realise that the usage of such words as “dyke” and “bender” can be just as offensive to people who are not the direct target of the comments.