In Which I Side with AA Gill

AA Gill and the Thunderer are in trouble with Clare Balding over comments he made regarding her sexuality.

The BBC presenter Clare Balding is embroiled in a furious row over a newspaper columnist’s “homophobic” remarks about her sexuality. The 39-year-old sports journalist has lodged a complaint with the Press Complaints Commission following a review of her new programme, Britain by Bike, by the Sunday Times‘s TV and restaurant critic, AA Gill.

So what did he say that was so heinous?

Gill had written: “Some time ago, I made a cheap and frankly unnecessary joke about Clare Balding looking like a big lesbian. And afterwards somebody tugged my sleeve to point out that she is a big lesbian.”

After a mock apology, he continued: “Now back to the dyke on a bike, puffing up the nooks and crannies at the bottom end of the nation.”

Okay, one might argue that it is in poor taste, but if poor taste was a crime, the gaols would be overflowing more than they already are. All I see here is a rather silly comment that is intended to be amusing – if that sort of thing amuses you. But, then, I don’t find Gill funny anyway, so I’m biased. However, it is just a silly comment in poor taste, nothing more.

Balding was very much unamused and complained to the paper concerned and was appalled by the response form the editor.

Balding complained to Witherow. She was then “appalled” to receive a reply stating: “In my view some members of the gay community need to stop regarding themselves as having a special victim status and behave like any other sensible group that is accepted by society.”

“Not having a privileged status means, of course, one must accept occasionally being the butt of jokes. A person’s sexuality should not give them a protected status.”

“Jeremy Clarkson, perhaps the epitome of the heterosexual male, is constantly jeered at for his dress sense (lack of), adolescent mindset and hairstyle. He puts up with it as a presenter’s lot and in this context I hardly think that AA Gill’s remarks were particularly cruel, especially as he ended by so warmly endorsing you as a presenter.”

Witherow’s response is on the button as far as I am concerned. Being homosexual should not mean that you have special status or that you should be protected from being offended. Also, let’s stop all this “homophobia” bollocks. A comment made in poor taste is not evidence of an irrational fear or loathing. We have all, at some point in our lives, been the butt of jokes made in poor taste. What we do is get over ourselves and we don’t play the victimhood poker card.

Balding responded: “When the day comes that people stop resigning from high office, being disowned by their families, getting beaten up and in some instances committing suicide because of their sexuality, you may have a point.”

Irrelevant, frankly.

“This is not about me putting up with having the piss taken out of me, something I have been quite able to withstand, it is about you legitimising name calling. ‘Dyke’ is not shouted out in school playgrounds (or as I’ve had it at an airport) as a compliment, believe me.”

That’s precisely what it is. I don’t care about peoples’ sexuality. It is none of my business and I don’t want to know. However, when people parade it in the public sphere, they shouldn’t be too surprised if some people take the piss. Get used to it and grow up.

There is a little principle here that is more important than Clare Balding and her sensitivity; freedom of speech. That means that we allow people to say things that others find unpleasant, tasteless and repugnant. John Witherow appears to get it. Clare Balding does not.


  1. I’m sure ‘the D word’ is used by lesbians themselves, just as other terms like queer and puff are used by gays amongst themselves. And anyway, why is lesbian acceptable, and for how much longer before somebody decides that that is offensive? It is certainly used as an insult, by children at least. The inhabitants of Lesbos would certainly prefer a new ‘official’ moniker to be adopted.

  2. “Witherow’s response is on the button as far as I am concerned.”

    Seconded! And isn’t it nice, in this day and age, to see someone – for once – not rolling over and uttering the now-expected craven apology?

  3. Yes, I found that remarkably refreshing. No apology was necessary and none was proffered. Instead he effectively told her to grow up and get over herself. Well said.

  4. There is in fact a Dykes on Bikes motorbike group in North America. Not sure if Clare has ever ridden with them.

    If she had decided to make a disparaging comment about AA Gill in return, there’s certainly plenty of ammo: “a Jan Moir for the well-read classes”; “a face with hissy fit written all over it”; “a man in need of a beauty spot and a fan to complete his persona”.

  5. Reviewing a tv programme does not require the critic to pass comments about the presenters sexuality.

    Gill was out of order.

  6. Gill is invariably out of order. He seems to seek to offend everyone sooner or later. But that’s free speech for you.

    As for mentioning a presenter’s sexuality – it seems these days, they like to wear it on their sleeves. I don’t go around telling people about mine, I’d appreciate it if they refrained from telling me about theirs. If, however, they do, then they shouldn’t get too precious if someone takes a pop at them.

  7. “I’d appreciate it if they refrained from telling me about theirs”

    But, Clare Balding hasn’t actively used the media to promote her sexuality, has she? She has just not actively hidden that she’s a lesbian and her lesbianism and her relationship is just treated as an aspect of what makes her Clare Balding. To use an analogy, are you suggesting that a Jewish presenter who has merely acknowleged their Jewish identity rather than actively sought to cover it up, is fair game for the epithet “kike on a bike”. And, if not, why not?

  8. That comment was more of a general one rather than about Balding specifically. I am not interested in and don’t want to know about peoples’ bedroom habits. Nor, for that matter do I want to know who their partners are or what sex they are. Yet these days we have people making a big issue about coming out and being proud of it. Only yesterday we had some minor celeb doing just that. Look, I’m not interested. Being gay is not something to be proud of any more than being hetero or any other aspect of what we are.

    To use an analogy, are you suggesting that a Jewish presenter who has merely acknowleged their Jewish identity rather than actively sought to cover it up, is fair game for the epithet “kike on a bike”.

    It is no different.

  9. I am a little confused because I was under the – perhaps wrong – impression – based on just a quick look around your website – that you were a libertarian. I thought that unfettered freedom of expression was central to libertarianism. It seems not quite consistent, therefore, to argue that you don’t want to see/hear the expression of views with which you do not agree. That is surely a contradiction of libertarian principles.

    We live in a society in which we are exposed to many aspects of life – particularly through the mass media – about which we may not want to know. That’s just too bad. We can, after all, discuss them or just ignore them. It is, however, rather less bad than being called a “kike/dyke on a bike” in public.

  10. No, you are reading something into my comments that is not there. Nowhere have I suggested that people not be allowed to discuss their sexuality. That would be inconsistent with libertarian values.

    I’m merely tired of an ethos that expects us to celebrate people’s sexuality, whereas in fact, it is a private matter, one in which I take no interest and is not worthy of celebration. What I am rebelling against here is the overt thrusting of gayness at us every opportunity – usually where there is no need. Indeed, AA Gill’s comments are just as guilty in that regard. They are tasteless and unnecessary, yet I defend his right to free expression.

    I would rather celebs didn’t keep telling me about their sexuality – it is of no interest and doesn’t make them special despite their apparent belief that it does. That I would prefer they kept private matters private is not an infringement of their freedom of speech at all.

    My expression of distaste for their behaviour is me exercising my freedom of speech.

  11. Balding does not “parade her sexuality”. That’s the point. Would AA Gill make a point in another review of mentioning that the presenter was a heterosexual? A “retro hetero”, or some other glib expression? Of course he wouldn’t.

    There is a difference between remarking, in passing, that someone is gay, if this helps to add texture to a portrait of someone, and these remarks by Gill. Whichever way you look at it, he is disparaging and attempting to ridicule her.

    I don’t blame the editor for supporting a member of his staff, but he chose very shakey ground on which to make his stand, and the comparison he drew with Clarkson was way wide of the mark as a similar case.

    Look, I don’t want to see a clampdown on satire or even abuse, frankly, but see this for what it is — schoolboy chortling from a sociopathic misfit who delights in generating self-publicity. This is not a case to get too earnest about. This is really not about free speech. In the unlikely event of a national newspaper writing an article about me, I wouldn’t mind it being mentioned that my mother recently died of cancer — it might be essential for context. However, if they took the piss out of her illness, and called her names, I would be bloody furious. And no, I’m not equating cancer with homosexuality. I’m saying that some facts are legitimate to mention (hence no bar to free speech), but there are a whole range of subjects that people are sensitive about, for good reason, and it’s unnecessarily cruel to deride them.

    It’s piss-taking abuse, and is out of order. Don’t confuse that with freedom of speech.

  12. I am not confused. Indeed, I made it pretty clear that I regard the comments as being in bad taste. However, Balding’s response is way over the top. This should not be a matter for the PCC. A sharp letter to the letters pages of the Times would have served better. I.e. exercising the right of reply, using perhaps some put-downs of the type suggested by Frederico earlier on in this discussion.

    I’m not convinced that Witherow is on shaky ground at all. It was a refreshing riposte compared with the craven apologies we are used to and he is right in what he says.

    Free speech means that no one has the right not to be offended – even if it is a childish piss-take.

  13. And I disagree that her response is “way over the top”. Her initial action was to complain to the editor, and he responded by putting the other boot in.

    I don’t think that “bad taste” should be illegal. But if someone leans over to my table in a restaurant and starts abusing my wife, I don’t laugh that off as “free speech”, and I will make some sort of response — very possibly more extreme than the original offence.

    As for “no one has the right not to be offended” – I find this a meaningless and glib cliché that seems to get dragged out to excuse reprehensible and nasty behaviour.

    As I’ve said, if someone wants to insult me, go ahead, but expect a response at least commensurate with the perceived nastiness.

    We all know that you can’t have total freedom of speech without running the risk of consequences worse than the removal of that freedom.

    As it’s open season on parading clichés, do you think it acceptable to cry “Fire!” in a crowded theatre?

  14. As it’s open season on parading clichés, do you think it acceptable to cry “Fire!” in a crowded theatre?

    Yes. There may well be a fire.

    I regard going to the PCC as over the top, not exercising the right of reply. Nowhere have I suggested that people not be allowed the right of reply.

    As I’ve said, if someone wants to insult me, go ahead, but expect a response at least commensurate with the perceived nastiness.

    Indeed. So would I. I wouldn’t go complaining to the PCC – or as some folk seem to these days, the police.

  15. —— As it’s open season on parading clichés, do you think it acceptable to cry “Fire!” in a crowded theatre?

    — Yes. There may well be a fire.

    Sigh, let me try that one again. Do you think it acceptable to cry “Fire!” in a crowded theatre, when there is no fire?

    I’ve just realised that you’re not that bright. I’m sorry we wasted each other’s time.

  16. Far from not being very bright – I was treating your use of the tired cliché with a degree of contempt. If the room is not on fire, then the owner of the room may choose to bar the person concerned. The Fire in the room analogy is always a silly one.

    You appear to be labouring under the impression that I have said freedom of speech carries no consequences. I have not and nothing I have said should give that impression. I merely object to the over the top response of running to the PCC over a silly jibe.

    Nice attempt at the ad hom, by the way. Well done, you.

  17. Longrider is a talentless, self centered cunt with no redeeeming features. Just sharing my views and execising my freedom of speech.

  18. And you are an ignorant prick. Your point being? Oh, yeah, you don’t have one. Twat.

    Oh, and redeeming has two Es, not three. There’s a facility on this blog to check before sending and to edit afterwards. Clearly you are too thick to figure it out.

    So, a bit dense then, too, eh?

  19. Hmm, walking on thin ice here, In my opinion ( and it is only an opinion ) I believe that if you have not got something relevant in a positive manner to say about someone then it is best to say nothing at all or if you cant be smart be cool, as an American friend of mine used to say. However under the auspices of the Lisbon Treaty, singed by Mr G. Brown in December 2009, all European citizens and that includes the U.K.’s population have the right to free speech even if other people find it offensive; as somebody who has had a fair share of insults over the years, some deserved and others not, it really comes down to how prepared you are to accept the consequences of your deportment and behaviour in relation to the surrounding situation and circumstances and even if you have done everything to behave with decorum, in life there is always someone who will be looking to make mischief and you have to accept that and let it pass, no point in being overly sensitive, there are a lot worse injustices to suffer than tasteless comments.

  20. I believe that if you have not got something relevant in a positive manner to say about someone then it is best to say nothing at all…

    That is generally the approach I take. I spend a great deal of my time biting my tongue 😉

    As I said in the original piece, of course, freedom of speech means people get to say ugly things. It also means being prepared to accept an appropriate response.

  21. The word “redeeming” has three Es and not two.

    Gill’s piece is puerile in parts but not nasty or homophobic. In fact, it’s quite affectionate. Jan Moir he is not. Balding has misjudged this, unless her goal was to raise her profile and I don’t think it was.

    Witherow’s response, however, was dunder-headed. If he’d accepted that the use of the phrase “dykes on bikes” was insensitive and left it at that, the whole slanging match might well have been avoided.

  22. I agree with you entirely on Balding’s reaction. I don’t agree about Witherow’s response. It’s time someone stood up and refused to apologise just for once. I’d like to see it happen a little more often – even if it is not always the “appropriate” response. It might just lead to people adopting thicker skins and it might, just might, stem the tide of the professionally offended. I suspect that Balding’s complaint was the pin that burst the abscess.

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