Is broadcaster Danny Baker a complete oaf or a misunderstood media genius? To understand the furore which greeted his unfortunate tweet about the new royal baby and resulted in a very public sacking, you need to know about his background.
Danny and I go back 40 years – two working class people who managed (against all the odds) to make a living out of working for the BBC, an organisation where (even in 2019) the over-educated and middle class dominate. We’re proof that in modern Britain, social mobility still moves at a glacial pace.
For all the BBC trumpets its ethnic, gay and gender-fluid presenters, one category is conspicuously absent on the radio and television – white working class people. Especially Londoners. It’s easier to appear on the BBC if you have a northern, Scottish or Welsh accent than if you come (like Danny does) from Deptford in London’s former dockland.
Danny Baker is not a racist. Over-hasty, excitable, a blabbermouth – but not racist. I gave Danny his first job in television, back in 1980. We’d met a few years earlier when he ran a fanzine called Sniffin’ Glue, and I was making a documentary about punk. Danny had turned down a place at grammar school and left secondary modern at 14, worked in a record shop and later boasted he had flogged stuff to Elton John. His motor mouth was legendary, even back in the 1980s.
Danny cannot take any kind of criticism or comment without flying off the handle – exactly like me. Once, I phoned and asked him to stop what he was doing and return to the office. He ran to London’s South Bank from Carnaby Street and collapsed unable to breathe – I dragged him to the local A&E department where doctors confirmed it was nothing more than a fit of rage and fury and he had to be talked down.
I am not an apologist for Danny Baker’s pet obsessions, football and working-class humour. I once listed cockney culture as something I would dump in the bin on the BBC comedy show Room 101. What Danny represents, though, is the large section of the population who feel they don’t get a voice on “posh” channels – exactly like Nigel Farage’s diehard fans. His obsession with sausage sandwiches is something you’d probably never understand if you didn’t come from a house with an outside toilet and a father who supported a second rate club and did the football pools every week.
Since I started my career on television in 1975, I’ve struggled not to be categorised as a fake cockney – but Danny Baker delights in celebrating his roots and his (dying) culture, has written three volumes of memoirs and is currently touring a stand-up show in which he holds forth (like Ken Dodd) for three hours at a stretch. It’s impossible to get in a black cab in London without the driver naming Danny as his favourite broadcaster.
We live in an era of hyper-sensitivity, with nuance and tone far more important than 10 years ago. As a broadcaster and journalist, it’s sometimes hard to keep up to speed with what you can and can’t say in case it causes offence. On television and radio, balance is paramount, even when it is patently ridiculous. Polemics are forbidden unless we present an opposing point of view.
When I dared to criticise the Duchess of Sussex for allowing her friends to talk to a US magazine, I got called a racist. It is impossible to make any comment other than adulatory about Meghan without being trashed on social media. For pity’s sake, can we rein all that in a tad? The Duchess even has George Clooney leaping to her defence every five minutes.
There needs to be reasoned debate in modern society, an allowance that it’s OK to be a republican, the ability to say that perhaps the royals live in a protected and pampered world. That there is a clear contradiction between wanting privacy but announcing your baby on Instagram – a fake medium if ever there was one.
Danny’s huge mistake was not to understand that black people would be completely offended by his post, and that is appalling. Once again the motormouth blabbed without considering the result, and he continued to sound off on his doorstep to the waiting press. But should Baker have been sacked if he has sincerely apologised? If I say (on balance) perhaps not, am I a racist by default? I once lived with a Jamaican boyfriend for five years, but get called racist regularly – infuriating to say the least.
In modern Britain, hypersensitivity is rampant, a paralysing disease that’s out of control. So many topics are on the “red alert” list on social media or in print, encouraging us to constantly self-censor in order to avoid an unnecessary confrontation that might rub someone up the wrong way. We are in danger of following the pattern established by some of our universities who “no-platform” anyone whose views could be “upsetting” – that is, are not held by the politically-correct students.
Danny Baker’s demise came from an unthinking naivety, and from a man prone to act before pausing to reflect. But the BBC’s response is an uncomfortable reminder that we are becoming a society where anything a bit prickly and uncomfortable must be swept from view and sanitised instantly. It might have been better for the broadcaster and their over-excitable employee to have resolved the situation through a live television debate. It would have made far more compelling viewing than Question Time. The BBC is in danger of becoming beige and bland – not a true reflection of the people it serves.
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