Should Andy Burton be fired for calling someone “a bit of a looker”?

Is calling someone a “looker” any worse than calling them good-looking?

The Sky Sports broadcaster Andy Burton has denied that he has been suspended, instead insisting that he has been "stood down" from tomorrow night's Carling Cup match between Birmingham and West Ham.

Either way, it seems he's become embroiled in the scandal surrounding sexist comments from his fellow Sky Sports broadcasters Andy Gray and Richard Keys, who were suspended by the channel after being recorded agreeing that a football official, Siân Massey, would need the offside rule explaining to her because she was a woman. This afternoon it was announced that Gray has been sacked for his comments.

For his part, Burton had said prior to going on air, before last Saturday's game between Liverpool and Wolves, that Massey was a "bit of a looker". There will surely now be considerable debate about whether those comments, taken away from the other comments made by his co-presenters, should be considered sexist in their own right.

One online dictionary has "looker" down as originating in 1893 and the use of the word in this context being "a very attractive person, especially a woman or girl". But not, one should add, a word that can be used only about a woman or a girl. Indeed, in the Guardian, in Simon Hattenstone's 1997 interview with the actor Pete Postlethwaite, he described the actor so:

However often you've watched Pete Postlethwaite on stage or screen, it's hard to prepare for the close-up: the compact body, dainty feet dressed in Kickers, the skin – cross-hatched with thin red contours – resembling a faintly exotic cheese, and those cheekbones bursting out of his head like swollen knuckles. Yet, against all odds, Pete Postlethwaite is a bit of a looker.

But a quick internet search for the use of the term does suggest it's more often used about women. Commenting on Beyoncé's Grammy Awards win in February last year, the Scotsman's Gary Flockhart said of the singer: "I've yet to meet anyone who doesn't start frothing at the mouth when the talk turns to the singer. That's probably because she's a bit of a looker, not to mention one of the best singers on the planet."

Of course, we can't all be "lookers". In a review of the book The Bolter by the Daily Mail's Craig Brown, he says of its heroine: "Idina Sackville, was, to put it bluntly, one of the greatest slags of her day . . . certainly no looker." Charming! The Daily Mail goes a step further in its review of the film Run Lola Run, describing the lead actress, Franka Potente, as, "certainly a looker as well as a goer".

Can the Daily Telegraph's use of the term settle the question – is calling someone a "looker" sexist? Perhaps there was no better opportunity than its review of Sex and the City 2, featuring as it does Sarah Jessica Parker's character Carrie Bradshaw, who herself has been analysed ad infinitum as to the degree of her feminism or otherwise.

The Telegraph's Harry Mount declared: "The penny dropped. The audience loved Sarah Jessica Parker because she's not much of a looker – like a very thin Bette Midler. With Carrie Bradshaw, there's none of the feelings of envy or self-loathing that hit them on seeing a gorgeous model getting hitched."

So, is calling someone a "looker" any worse than calling them good-looking? Is calling someone good-looking enough to get them the sack? It seems Andy Burton may be about to find out.

Jason Stamper is the New Statesman's technology correspondent.

Jason Stamper is editor of Computer Business Review

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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.