It is a good thing the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) did not exist in the 18th century. Its sensitive soul would have been appalled by the scurrilous and highly personal criticisms made by scribblers. For example, the poet Alexander Pope, whose own pen was sometimes dipped in venom, was the subject of attacks by at least 40 writers in numerous pamphlets.
John Dennis compared him to "a hunchbacked toad" – particularly nasty as Pope was a semi-cripple or hunchback. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu compared him to a monkey. As well as his deformity, the poet's Roman Catholicism, his Tory friendships and his supposedly poor knowledge of Greek (he had translated Homer's Iliad) were mocked, lampooned or otherwise abused.
I mention this because the PCC has just censured AA Gill of The Sunday Times for describing the television presenter Clare Balding as a "dyke on a bike". The paper carried the lengthy adjudication yesterday. What Mr Gill wrote in his column may be very mild stuff in comparison to what was dished out to Alexander Pope, but it was evidently distressing to Ms Balding all the same.
Mr Gill used the phrase "dyke on a bike" in a review on 25 July of her programme Britain by Bike, which he actually ended up by praising. But before he got to that point he indulged in a mock apology of earlier disobliging remarks about her sexuality. (She is openly gay.) He then wrote: "Now back to the dyke on the bike, puffing up the nooks and crannies at the bottom end of the nation."
Hardly Popian, is it? Mr Gill's customarily elegant pen deserted him on this occasion. The passage seems coarse and tasteless and perhaps a little cruel. "Dyke on bike" is clunking. Indeed it is so much so that Clare Balding had already morally won the argument, and had no need to make a compliant to the PCC. Any sensitive reader would have sided with her, and marvelled that Mr Gill could so let himself down.
But it does not follow that the PCC was right to find in her favour. I don't believe it was. Clause 12 of its code of conduct is clear that newspapers should avoid "prejudicial or pejorative reference" to an individual's sexual orientation. Obviously it is a question of interpretation. Ms Balding asserts that the word "dyke" is "too often used as a pejorative and insulting term". That is her opinion. I would say that, though not neutral, it is less offensive than she and the PCC believe.
I accept there must some limits to what a columnist can write. We do not live in the 18th century. For all that, the PCC is being over-sensitive. I can understand that Ms Balding was hurt, and I am sorry that she was. But what Mr Gill wrote could not in a million years incite homophobia. Nor, because of its pointless crudity, did it damage Clare Balding. It was just childish and silly – but these are not crimes, just relatively minor lapses of taste which do not justify censuring and censoring a columnist. I hope the PCC is not turning into the Thought Police.
The forgettable redesign of 'The Spectator'
I learnt long ago to avoid immediate definitive judgements about a publication's redesign, and I shall try not to forget the lesson in writing about The Spectator's new makeover. I like the clarity of the new contents page and I dislike the caricatures of columnists above their pieces.
The overall effect is to make the magazine look rather more serious, which is probably a good thing. But what does it matter? In a month or two, most readers will have forgotten that there ever was a redesign. There is not much point in buffing up the bodywork when the engine, though still basically sound and well engineered, continues occasionally to misfire. The days when I looked forward to picking up my copy of The Spectator are gone.
Is it just me? I don't think so. Most of my journalistic friends grumble a little about it. So do some ordinary readers I meet. After more than two decades of pretty constant growth, sales have stalled. In the 12 months to August, circulation was down by 6.3 per cent, though other serious magazines such as The Economist and The Oldie and Prospect surged ahead.
Somehow the magazine has got slightly becalmed. Not enough surprises. Not enough good pieces or must-read columnists, though Taki and Charles Moore continue to delight. Of course there is absolutely no need to panic, and we must always remember that under the stewardship of its chief executive, Andrew Neil, The Spectator will always have an alternative life as an organisation throwing an ever increasing number of lavish parties.
Janus face of the BBC's coverage of the Pope
The BBC is a curious organisation. Before the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Britain, it was generous in offering his critics a platform from which to throw various missiles at him.
On the eve of his arrival, the Corporation broadcast a programme called Trials of a Pope, hardly a paean of praise. Cardinal Keith O'Brien, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, had a point when he recently accused the BBC of "a consistent anti-Christian bias".
But once the Pope touched down in Edinburgh, everything changed. The BBC went into State pageant mode. I noticed it first when James Naughtie was describing the Pope's progress down Princes Street in hushed tones. The quite modest crowds were pronounced substantial.
His colleague Huw Edwards said how well the Pope had got on with the Queen. Much time was given over to interviewing happy onlookers. Vatican TV couldn't have done better. Say what you like about the BBC, it does love a spectacle.