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.
The photo of Danny Baker is by Paul Hudson, via Wki Commons, under a Creative Commons 2.0 Generic Licence.
This case is a travesty. It’s upsetting and disturbing. An innocent man has been knowingly sacrificed as a warning and an example to all white people in the U.K. “Step out of line or say the wrong thing (even unwittingly) and you will suffer character assassination and have approbrium heaped down upon you”.
What’s hardest to take, is hearing all the people saying that it doesn’t matter if he didn’t mean it the way it turned out. They have a whipping boy, and he is going to suffer for some of the anger at racism that builds up (it seems) in a large proportion of the black British community over time. This anger and these feelings of hurt, periodically need an outlet – like a thundercloud needing to discharge some of its energy in the form of a lightning strike.
And this week, poor Danny Baker has been their victim.
It could be me or any other white person next week.
This is just one example of the heaps of really negative and destructive views that I’ve heard in the last few days, and find it shows the face of modern multicultural England. This is where we’re at.
The woman has suffered racial abuse in her life – particularly when growing up, so that today, no quarter is given, or mercy shown, when someone comes along and does something that can make them a target.
Danny Baker screwed up. He probably forgot that Megan Markle is black. She doesn’t look black so it’s easy to forget. Particularly if you tend to avoid 95% of the stupid royal coverage like he seems to have done.
I’ve got a niece and nephew who are one quarter North African Jewish. I hardly ever remember that.
Their grandmother came from Morocco and has a darker skin than our side of the family.
Their mother (who is “mixed”) is less so …. and they look white.
Should I always be bearing in mind that they’re not actually white, but “people of colour?”
My answer would be: “Of course not – that would be ridiculous”.
I’ve listened to a lot of comment about this on BBC Radio London (a station Danny Baker was on for years) and LBC radio also. It’s been quite depressing. Caller after caller into these shows have lined up to condemn Baker.
A greater majority of black callers have. The same people I live next to and work with and sit next to on the bus.
There was even one guy from where I’m from (Croydon) who insisted that “of course he knew what he was doing”.
I really don’t want to spend the rest of my life living around such ignorant people.
Danny Baker can hardly leave his house now. Even to walk down to the shops in Blackheath where he lives.
People will be accusing him of being a disgusting racist.
Even some of his former work colleagues have shunned him and left him cowering.
Both Eddie Nestor and Henry Bonsu (black radio presenters at Radio London) have said that he probably did it for racist reasons. I can never listen to them with any respect ever again.
But well done to Kenan for coming out and saying this in the Guardian.
How many others of the BME Guardian writers who talk about race issues have got this right?
And well done Maajid Nawaz on LBC radio too. A voice of sanity and compassion on this subject.
Also to a black caller into LBC about 3am a few nights ago. He now lives in Amsterdam, but came out and defended Danny Baker and said that he thought that the other (particularly black) callers who were condemning him were getting it badly wrong. He said there was something unhealthy in black British attitudes to integration and separatism. I was glad to hear him speaking up. There were a couple of other notable exceptions too, and for those I was grateful.
But all in all, this is really bad. It’s an injustice.
Maybe Baker didn’t consider the racist implications of the tweet as, due to the fact Megan looks like the average brunette you’d see in the street, her ‘race’ has to actually be pointed out and made a thing of.
Maybe Baker didn’t consider the potential racist implications of the image as, due to the fact Megan looks little different to any other brunette in the street, her ‘race’ has to actually be pointed out and made a deliberate thing of.
Given that the word “racism” is deemed inappropriate to describe what happened to Danny Baker – as it’s insisted on that racism is “prejudice plus power” or something like that – then a different word needs to be used.
Although I don’t know why the white person in this instance is deemed to have any power at all. Or “white privilege”.
Those were stripped from him the moment this story broke. His accusers are the ones who have the power.
And there are of course plenty of white people who condemned him too – and “threw him under the bus”.
So if describing the cruel attack on him can’t be said to be racist, then I’d suggest the word “sectarian”.
It’s a pretty good one for situations like this I think.
I spent most of 2011/12 living in Belfast and took a close look at what sectarianism was like.
Post ‘Troubles’ – in the time I was there.
There was plenty of mixing of the two communities in city and town centres. Many worked in a mixed workforce.
But there were still very obvious community divisions and people tended to prefer to live and socialise in separate areas. Where they did mix, any talk of the sectarian divide and politics was best avoided.
Their differences weren’t ones that could just be resolved by talking things through. They had fundamental differences of opinion that ran too deep.
And I’m reminded of some of the places I’ve worked in London in recent years, with dozens of working class delivery drivers, sometimes with more black guys than white. You can get along fine – and I did, but there would be subjects of conversation that were best not discussed between black and white. This could be one of them.
Defending Danny Baker in this instance, could cause an argument or bad feeling.
And no one needs that at work, so best not talk about it.
Actually in London, it’s white working class people like Baker who are often the “ethnic minority”. And his south London Bermondsey style accent is getting rarer and rarer. It’s so rare that sometimes it’s like a jolt from the past. Maybe people of his class and historical origins deserve some kind of protected status.
I definitely think this “prejudice plus power” thing needs another look at, as minority populations have grown so much that it’s not always clear who “has most power” in any given situation. In multicultural cities at street level and with everyday interactions in public, it’s not always whites “having power” and black people being the victims of racism.
What’s quite pathetic is that the BBC, who have no problem going after people and prosecuting them for not having TV liciences, didn’t feel that they could stand up to the sectarian outrage mob in this instance.
Even when it became obvious that there’s no way that Baker can have intended to make the kind of racist inference in his twitter post that’s been insisted on.
That could only have happened if he’d had some idea of deliberately harming himself.
But what a hero. They say that Millwall fans are fearless and tough.
I thought he’d be hiding in his house too afraid to go out, but was pleased to read that he actually did a show up in Nottingham the other night in front of a live audience.
Here’s two of the Guardian’s opinion columnists.
Nesrine Malik giving moral support to her colleague Afua Hirsch on twitter, talking about Danny Baker.
Afua Hirsch was truly appalling on that TV show the clip is taken from.
This is diversity politics at its worst, and it’s looking like it’s breaking down along racial lines.
Another BME Guardian writer said just yesterday that it was OK to throw milkshakes over right wing people standing for election.
These people need calling out by name. They’re really creating sectarian divisions in Britain.