The Press Complaints Commission has upheld a complaint made by BBC presenter Clare Balding after Sunday Times writer AA Gill described her as a ‘dyke on a bike”.
Balding complained that Gill had breached the discrimination clause of the Editors’ Code by making the comment in The Sunday Times Culture section on 25 July 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 freedom of expression grounds, claiming the controversial columnist was well-known for his acerbic and sometimes tasteless sense of humour.
The Sunday Times told the PCC the term ‘dyke’had been reclaimed by various groups as an empowering, not offensive, term.
In its view, the PCC was told, there was no reason why – in an age where homosexuality carried little social stigma – the reviewer could not discuss the sexuality of a TV presenter who had no problem with being openly gay.
The newspaper drew the PCC’s attention to two organisations called Dykes on Bikes – an American lesbian motorcycling movement and a UK-based cycling movement – whose members had reclaimed the word ‘dyke’as an empowering, not offensive, term.
It argued that an individual’s sexuality should not give them an ‘all-encompassing protected status”.
The PCC rejected this interpretation ruling that use of the word ‘dyke’in the article – whatever its intention – was a ‘pejorative synonym relating to the complainant’s sexuality”.
Balding indicated to the PCC that she was not demanding special treatment, simply the same treatment as everybody else.
She had asked the newspaper to apologise, complaining to its editor, John Witherow, about the tone of the article. However, in a later Guardian interview she claimed to be taken aback by his response which suggested that some gay people need to ‘stop regarding themselves as having a special victim status”.
‘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,’the PCC ruled.
‘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, 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.”