With sensitivity to perceived racism growing all the time, how important should intent be when society punishes someone for stepping over the line?
On Wednesday, BBC radio presenter and comedian Danny Baker posted a black-and-white retro photo meme that showed a chimp accompanied by two well-dressed chaperones, with the caption “Royal baby leaves the hospital.”
If we believe that this was a joke mocking the mixed-race origin of the newborn Archie, whose mother Meghan Markle is half-black, then this is a clear-cut cause for dismissal. Characterizing black people as simians has a long and inglorious history.
But what if we take the furious Baker at his word – that his “mind is not diseased” so he didn’t think of the “possible connotations” and deleted the tweet voluntarily as soon as he was alerted to them.
While he can occasionally be opinionated, Danny Baker is a Corbyn-supporting lifelong left-winger whose forty-year broadcasting career – thousands of hours of unscripted radio chat – had previously managed to skirt a single notable racism controversy. Talking of Occam’s Razor, Baker himself wrote how inconceivable it is that he would voluntarily bring this upon himself for the sake of being edgy.
Some would say that even genuine ignorance is no defense. That a man in the public eye should be more aware of the context and impact on others of what he posts online.
But Baker’s backstory provides its own context, which the many who demanded his sacking simply chose to ignore because it makes condemning him easier.
This is not to exonerate Baker, but simply to point that punishing language is not the same as punishing murder: there is always a grey area where you are sentencing suspects for thoughtcrime, or perhaps even catching the innocent in the dragnet.
Danny Baker (a man I’ve worked with in the past) knew full well what that tweet was suggesting. No comedian in their right mind could overlook that, that’s not how our brains work. We see a joke from every angle. He knew it was racist, thought it was funny and posted it anyway 👍🏾
— London Hughes (@TheLondonHughes) May 9, 2019
Are you kidding, Danny Baker has worked in media since the 1970s, most commonly as a football pundit. Of course he knows connecting that specific photo to this specific event is racist. He had to search for it.
— Dr Fern Riddell (@FernRiddell) May 9, 2019
The scandal raises a related question: how tenuous does the link have to be between what is said or written and detectable racism?
For example, could someone really be not aware that Archie is ¼ black? Perhaps only the truly careless. But what if he has a son of his own with a white woman, who is 1/8 black? Can ignorance be forgiven then? What racial proportion does someone have to be before it is acceptable to post chimp memes about them?
Perhaps the easiest approach, is to never make any potentially misinterpreted jokes at all – so no animal comparisons or other offensive material. It is one the BBC would approve with their “zero tolerance” approach to Baker and their own impeccably “safe” content.
But if it had taken this approach, would the corporation have ever commissioned, say Fawlty Towers, with its portrayal of bumbling and easily confused Manuel the Spanish waiter, who is not even played by a Spaniard. Should it even be showing repeats of this sitcom?
More currently, what about the next time a storm of unflattering epithets – much more aggressive and personal than chimp – is unleashed by one of its presenters or guests at Donald Trump? They likely won’t be fired.
Does context enter back into it then? It’s OK to insult white people referring to the color of their skin, for example, but not black people. Maybe it’s OK to mock the powerful, but not the weak? Or is it the other way round, anyone is fair game, but not the royals? Or maybe Prince Philip is a joke, but Queen Elizabeth is not.
Everyone but the perfect moral guardians would agree that the rules can be unfair, and false positives can strike even the most politically correct.
Or should the offended party simply decide whether it finds something racist or sexist or transphobic, and then ensure that the culprit is disgraced? After all people complained after Baker’s tweet, hence the reaction. But then aren’t we just giving more power to Twitter mobs and their own political biases?
All this would make Danny Baker, or anyone else, think twice about telling that joke, sharing that meme or sending that tweet. Should we celebrate or be afraid? Should we all live like the BBC?
By Igor Ogorodnev
Igor Ogorodnev is a Russian-British journalist, who has worked at RT since 2007 as a correspondent, editor and writer.