In response to the arrival of the first heir to the British throne of mixed-race heritage, Baker had shared an image of two adults and a monkey dressed in an overcoat and top hat with the caption “royal baby leaves hospital”.
Written in such stark terms, the offence itself and the punishment delivered seem straightforwardly correct, yet the BBC has already faced criticism for its response.
In a public apology, Baker stated that the image was “supposed to be a joke about royals vs circus animals in posh clothing”, and there are many who believe that to lose one’s livelihood for an error of judgement about what constitutes humour is a gross overreaction and example of the hypersensitive culture of offence in which we now live – one that is damaging public discourse.
It is true that images of chimps dressed in human clothing is a tired form of British “seaside” humour once considered so endearing and homely that it might convince you to buy a box of teabags. And Baker himself is working class broadcaster whose own wit and preferred topics of conversation – which sauce do you prefer on your sausage sandwich, for example – mark him from the BBC colleagues his fans might claim would sneer at them.
Good practice in matters of employment is not dictated by polling public responses on social media. Indeed, it was not up to the BBC to decide whether Baker’s fans or critics would think he was judged correctly, but simply to agree whether his actions constituted a breach of his relationship with them – for which he is paid a very healthy sum of money.
Explaining his actions on Twitter, Baker said the racist overtones of his message “never occurred to me because, well, [my] mind [is] not diseased”. Yet his show on BBC Radio 5 Live was linked, if somewhat tangentially, to sport. The world of football, which is covered daily by the radio station, is currently dogged by racism: black players have spoken openly about the racism they suffer while on pitch, including monkey chanting from the terraces, and the serious emotional and social damage such abuse abuses.
Linking black people to monkeys is a centuries-old racist trope that, even if he did not consider it at the moment he posted the picture, Baker could not have been entirely unaware of.
He is not a junior researcher twiddling the studio knobs on the graveyard shift. If such an individual had committed a similar offence they would no doubt have been chastised and forced to publicly apologise, yet they may have remained within the BBC’s ranks. Baker, however, is a broadcaster of almost 40 years’ experience. If his slip up was indeed the result of pure naivety, then that alone would be sufficient to justify the swift response. Such a significant error of judgement is itself a sackable offence.
It is also not Baker’s first mistake while working for the corporation. He has been fired by the BBC twice before, once in 1997 after encouraging football fans to abuse a referee after he awarded a controversial penalty in an FA Cup tie, and more recently in 2012 when his BBC London show was dropped, in response to which he launched an on-air rant calling his bosses “pinheaded weasels”.
The BBC is a British institution which has a responsibility not only to broadcast material that reflects its stated values, but also to employ individuals – in particular its well-paid figureheads who are known and loved in our society – who embody those values too. One of the BBC’s aims, as listed on its own website, is to “respect each other and celebrate our diversity”. Any individual who could be accused of racism with arguable grounds, even if inadvertent or unthinking, has no place within that institution.
The hyperbole around the royal birth may appear to many to be symptomatic of the pointless circus around the royal family, and one that The Independent would do better to avoid. This title has published perhaps a little more about the new baby than it has on previous royal events. That is because, as the first mixed-heritage member of the Windsor family, young Archie Harrison represents a moment of potential healing for a nation damaged not only by the racist attitudes of the past but also by the recent resurgence of anti-immigrant feeling and hate crime prompted by Brexit, and the government’s mishandling of the Windrush scandal.
Into this era of change comes a thoughtless, offensive remark by a BBC broadcaster whose experience alone should mean he knows far better. The BBC has acknowledged the ways in which British society has changed and moved on, and its decisions over which figures best represent that world reflect that too.
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