Sunday Times under fire over “dyke” slur against Clare Balding

BBC presenter complains to press watchdog after paper defends A A Gill’s “dyke on a bike” gibe.

The Sunday Times is embroiled in a damaging homophobia row after the paper defended the writer A A Gill's description of the BBC presenter Clare Balding as a "dyke".

In a review of Balding's new programme, Britain by Bike, Gill wrote (subscription required): "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. So I'd like to take this opportunity to apologise. Sorry."

He continued: "Now back to the dyke on a bike, puffing up the nooks and crannies at the bottom end of the nation."

Balding, quite understandably, complained to the paper's editor, John Witherow, about the tone of the piece. But it was his response that "appalled" her further.

Witherow said:

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 mindset and hairstyle. He puts up with it as a presenter's lot and in this context I hardly think that A A Gill's remarks were particularly cruel, especially as he ended by so warmly endorsing you as a presenter.

Witherow's response to Balding appears to be based on the premise that "dyke" is an essentially innocuous term. But as Balding responded: "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."

One has to ask: would Witherow employ the same defence if one of his writers referred to a gay person as a "poofter" or to a black person as a "nigger"?

Balding took to Twitter in search of solidarity and for advice about her decision to make a formal complaint to the Press Complaints Commission. Gill, previously prompted outrage on the site after revealing that he had shot a baboon "to see what it would be like to kill someone".

In response, Stephen Fry tweeted: "hurrah for @clarebalding1 -- I know few people more capable of laughing at themselves, but cruel meanness can't stand." Meanwhile, John Prescott wrote: "Just heard you're taking AA Gill and the Sunday Times to PCC. Good luck. Disgraceful what they wrote. Gill's a real sh**."

There will be some who predictably portray this as an assault on Gill's right to free expression, but it's nothing of the sort. Granting him the right to make such comments does not mean that he was right to do so.

If it has any sense, the Sunday Times will make a formal apology to Balding and prevent any further damage to its reputation.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.