Sunday, 15 February 2009
Thatcher: strictly liable?
Controversy seems to constantly dog the BBC these days; whether it's faking phone-in competitions or leaving elderly actors explicit messages on their answering machines, the BBC constantly seems to be wrong footed every time an embarrassing situation arises. And little wonder: it has an annual budget of more then £4 billion, much of it funded by the public via the annual television licence. It's this unique public accountability that makes it particularly vulnerable to criticism, particularly from those who have a vested interest in seeing the Beeb squirm. That's the private media sector, among others.
So when Carol Thatcher, daughter of former British prime minister and union-botherer Margaret Thatcher, likened black French tennis player Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to a 'golliwog' backstage in the BBC's green room, the BBC had to be seen to act fast. 'Golliwog' is generally considered to be an offensive term describing black people, and has a long history of being used as a term in prejudicial circumstances.
Carol's remark was reported to producers, and after a quick inquiry in which an unconditional apology was not forthcoming she was banned from taking part in The One Show, in which she'd been working as a roving reporter.
It appeared that the BBC, having learned from its past mistakes, had decided to act swiftly and firmly.
And yet the decision has still attracted controversy. The remark was not broadcast or made in a studio, but rather was off-the-cuff and made in private. And supporters of Thatcher claimed the punishment was disproportionate, citing the 12 week ban dolled out to Jonathan Ross in the wake of the aforementioned 'Sachsgate' telephone messages saga.
So is Carol's ban justified? Were her comments "wholly unacceptable", as described by the BBC, or merely a harmless reference to the golliwog motifs that she saw in her childhood on "jars of jam"?
In media law there is a concept known as 'strict liability', which means that intent - or lack of - cannot be employed as a legal defence.
I think it implausible that an educated and intelligent woman such as Thatcher Junior did not know that 'golliwog' is deeply offensive to a broad section of society, and, however innocuous its use, could and would prove deeply offensive to anyone described as such.
So is Carol racist? Probably not, in the sense that it seems unlikely that she'll become a mouthpiece for the extreme right any time soon. But should she have known that such a comment could be construed as such?
When it comes to anything that remotely resembles racist language, it's probably best to keep it away from the cameras, and that includes anywhere near one too.
Strictly liable? Perhaps. Should she have known better? Definately...