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.

Photo:Getty
Show Hide image

Labour is a pioneer in fighting sexism. That doesn't mean there's no sexism in Labour

While we campaign against misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of thinking Labour is above it; doing so lets women members down and puts the party in danger of not taking them seriously when they report incidents. 

I’m in the Labour party to fight for equality. I cheered when Labour announced that one of its three Budget tests was ensuring the burden of cuts didn’t fall on women. I celebrated the party’s record of winning rights for women on International Women’s Day. And I marched with Labour women to end male violence against women and girls.

I’m proud of the work we’re doing for women across the country. But, as the Labour party fights for me to feel safer in society, I still feel unsafe in the Labour party.

These problems are not unique to the Labour party; misogyny is everywhere in politics. You just have to look on Twitter to see women MPs – and any woman who speaks out – receiving rape and death threats. Women at political events are subject to threatening behaviour and sexual harassment. Sexism and violence against women at its heart is about power and control. And, as we all know, nowhere is power more highly-prized and sought-after than in politics.

While we campaign against misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of thinking Labour is above it; doing so lets women members down and puts the party in danger of not taking them seriously when they report incidents. 

The House of Commons’ women and equalities committee recently stated that political parties should have robust procedures in place to prevent intimidation, bullying or sexual harassment. The committee looked at this thanks to the work of Gavin Shuker, who has helped in taking up this issue since we first started highlighting it. Labour should follow this advice, put its values into action and change its structures and culture if we are to make our party safe for women.

We need thorough and enforced codes of conduct: online, offline and at all levels of the party, from branches to the parliamentary Labour party. These should be made clear to everyone upon joining, include reminders at the start of meetings and be up in every campaign office in the country.

Too many members – particularly new and young members – say they don’t know how to report incidents or what will happen if they do. This information should be given to all members, made easily available on the website and circulated to all local parties.

Too many people – including MPs and local party leaders – still say they wouldn’t know what to do if a local member told them they had been sexually harassed. All staff members and people in positions of responsibility should be given training, so they can support members and feel comfortable responding to issues.

Having a third party organisation or individual to deal with complaints of this nature would be a huge help too. Their contact details should be easy to find on the website. This organisation should, crucially, be independent of influence from elsewhere in the party. This would allow them to perform their role without political pressures or bias. We need a system that gives members confidence that they will be treated fairly, not one where members are worried about reporting incidents because the man in question holds power, has certain political allies or is a friend or colleague of the person you are supposed to complain to.

Giving this third party the resources and access they need to identify issues within our party and recommend further changes to the NEC would help to begin a continuous process of improving both our structures and culture.

Labour should champion a more open culture, where people feel able to report incidents and don't have to worry about ruining their career or facing political repercussions if they do so. Problems should not be brushed under the carpet. It takes bravery to admit your faults. But, until these problems are faced head-on, they will not go away.

Being the party of equality does not mean Labour is immune to misogyny and sexual harassment, but it does mean it should lead the way on tackling it.

Now is the time for Labour to practice what it preaches and prove it is serious about women’s equality.

Bex Bailey was on Labour’s national executive committee from 2014 to 2016.