BBC sports presenter Clare Balding’s formal complaint over an AA Gill TV review in the Sunday Times that mocked her sexuality has been upheld.
Balding filed the complaint to the Press Complaints Commission in July, claiming that Gill had breached the discrimination clause of the Editors’ Code while reviewing her BBC4 programme, Britain by Bike.
Balding claimed Gill’s use of a “pejorative reference to her sexuality, irrelevant to the programme” was compounded by a mock apology by the columnist for previously saying that she looked “like a big lesbian”.
The newspaper defended Gill on the grounds of freedom of expression. Media commentators have today criticised the PCC’s judgement as amounting to censorship.
In the review, Gill described Balding as a “dyke on a bike”, and the PCC ruled that that use of the expression in the article – whatever its intention – was a “pejorative synonym relating to the complainant’s sexuality”.
The PCC ruling said, “The context was not that the reviewer was seeking positively to ‘reclaim’ the term, but rather to use it to refer to the complainant’s sexuality in a demeaning and gratuitous way.
“This was an editorial lapse which represented a breach of the code, and the newspaper should have apologised at the first possible opportunity.”
Stephen Abell, a director of the PCC, said: “Freedom of expression is a key part of an open society and something which the commission has defended robustly in the past.
“While the commentator is clearly entitled to his opinion about both the programme and the complainant, there are restraints placed upon him by the terms of the editors’ code.
“Clause 12 is very clear that newspapers must avoid prejudicial, pejorative or irrelevant reference to an individual’s sexual orientation and the reference to Miss Balding plainly breached its terms.”
But some media commentators believe that the PCC’s ruling is flawed, and compare the decision unfavourably with an earlier ruling that rejected the many complaints received over similarly homophobic remarks by Jan Moir published in the Daily Mail after the death of singer Stephen Gateley.
Roy Greenslade, the former Daily Mirror Editor, now professor of journalism at City University, in his Media Guardian online column, disagrees with today’s PCC ruling, albeit reluctantly. He writes that everyone has “a right to be offensive. To deny that right compromises press freedom. In effect, the PCC decision amounts to censorship …
“Though I can understand Balding’s hurt and I would rather Gill had not made such a cheap jibe, I have to side with the right of writers to offend.”
The Sunday Times, having failed to publish an apology to Balding at the first opportunity, will be expected to carry the PCC ruling in full this weekend.