This essay, on the debate around Danny Baker’s racist tweet, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on why we need poetry.) It was published on 12 May 2019, under the headline ‘We thrive on provocation. But are we too quick to punish those who stray?’.
There was something shocking and absurd about Danny Baker’s tweet of a photograph of a posh couple with a costumed monkey in response to the arrival of the royal baby. You didn’t have to be an expert in the history of racist images to recognise its implications. Just last year, the US comedian Roseanne Barr was sacked, and her newly-resurrected show pulled, for a tweet in which she likened a former black adviser to Barack Obama to a child of the ‘Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes’.
There was something equally absurd about Baker’s defence of his tweet. ‘Never occurred to me’ that it was racist, he tweeted, ‘because, well, mind not diseased’. ‘I can’t see racism in front of my eyes because I’m not a racist,’ is not exactly a coherent answer. Nor is the implication that only a ‘diseased mind’ would have recognised the racism particularly clever.
The following day, Baker provided a more reasoned response, ‘formally apologising’ for a ‘genuine, naive and catastrophic mistake’, adding: ‘I’ve fucked up. Badly.’ He suggested he was trying to make a point about class, not race, and to ‘lampoon privilege’. He has a history of posting pictures of costumed apes to mock poshness. It’s hard to fathom, though, how someone as steeped in the culture of football and music as Baker could not recognise the racist implications of his tweet. After all, much of the past year has been dominated by discussions about black footballers facing monkey chants.
Few who know Baker, or have listened to his shows, would consider him racist. Part of the problem, perhaps, is the way social media has encouraged people to be provocative for the sake of it, at the same time as it has eroded boundaries between the public and the private. Baker is infamous for his rage-filled, foul-mouthed tweets, particularly about football.
The kind of talk we might once have shared only with friends we knew would not take it the wrong way now constantly spills into the public sphere. The desire to be offensive as a mark of ‘authenticity’, or as a challenge to authority, can often blind people to the real meaning of what’s being said.
What of Baker’s sacking? Many have insisted the BBC had no choice. Others see him as a victim of political correctness or of Twitter mobs. Neither view really gets to the heart of the case.
People should have the right to be offensive, even racist. I have long opposed the criminalisation of offensive or hateful speech. But those who are offensive or racist must also face the consequences of their views.
Do these consequences include being sacked? In most cases, no. It’s becoming increasingly common for employers to sack employees for comments made not in the workplace, or as part of their job, but as private citizens. From academic Steven Salaita, whose appointment was blocked by the University of Illinois for tweets about Gaza deemed antisemitic; to Angela Williamson, an employee of Cricket Australia, sacked for tweeting about the Tasmanian government’s abortion facilities; to economist Maya Forstater, dismissed from the thinktank Centre for Global Development for tweeting about trans women that ‘men cannot turn into women’ – employers are increasingly policing the views of workers.
It’s a trend that should worry us. Employees should be judged by their ability to do their job, not their political views. To accept that employees should be sacked for their political views is a dangerous path.
Baker’s case is more complicated. For someone who is a public face of an organisation, as a presenter is, the image they project is, to a degree, part of their job. ‘Protecting the organisation’s image’ has become one of the excuses for sacking employees for their views expressed as private citizens. That trend should be resisted. Nevertheless, it’s not unreasonable in certain cases for an organisation such as the BBC to consider the image of a presenter.
Baker’s case is different, too, because he was not sacked for his views but for an error of judgment. My view is that a tweet, racist but not designed to be so, which was deleted, and for which he apologised (albeit half-heartedly and disingenuously to begin with) should not be a sacking offence.
All of us make mistakes, even egregious ones. Those who recognise their mistakes, and try to correct them, should be treated with a degree of generosity.
The problem, though, is that generosity tends to be in short supply these days. We are too quick to paint opponents in the worst possible light and to demand retribution for mistakes that people make. The desire for punishment is the other side of the craving to be provocative. It’s time we questioned both sides of this equation.