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.

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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.