Why should celebs like Clare be fair game for such venom?
Sunday Times critic AA Gill's now notorious review of Clare Balding's series, Britain by Bike, in which he dubbed the presenter as a ‘dyke on a bike' is a nasty piece of work.
Gill is offensive from the off, apologising for saying in an earlier review that Balding looked like a big lesbian only to find out later that she actually was one. Ho ho.
Gracious apology over, it's ‘Now back to the dyke on a bike, puffing up the nooks and crannies at the bottom end of the nation.' (Phnrr, phnrr)
While lacing in a few praises for Balding being a refreshing change from the usual female presenter flirting down the camera, Gill muses, after following Balding's ‘muscular backside' towards Ilfracombe, that he'd like to see her as ‘a sturdier Judith Chalmers, possibly in lederhosen'. And signs off: ‘I wonder if the production team noticed that, even through three layers of Viyella and Gore-Tex, Clare has heroically assertive nipples.'
Result uproar, with Balding complaining to both to the Sunday Times and the Press Complaints Commission about Gill and his remarks.
So far, much has been made about the ‘dyke on a bike' joke and whether the word is perjorative. Little — because it’s just common-or-garden personal abuse — has been made of the ‘heroically assertive nipples'.
Sunday Times' editor, John Witherow, defended his man, saying that ‘some members of the gay community need to stop regarding themselves as having a special victim status' and compared Balding's thrashing to the sneers white middle-aged hetero Everybloke Jeremy Clarkson gets about his dress sense.
It's an argument which reminds one of the old joke: ‘We are an equal opportunities employer. Regardless of race, creed, colour or sexual orientation, we treat all our employees with equal contempt.'
Because that, basically, is what Witherow's defence boils down to: the right to be as nasty as you wanna be — as long as the bile is doled out in all directions.
It may be equal, it may be fair, but it's not right. When will someone tell Gill, Frankie Boyle, Jimmy Carr et al that just because you may have a theoretical right to say something which may be deeply hurtful, doesn't mean you should? Too often, freedom of speech is confused with the freedom to demean.
If media bosses concentrated on simple, common decency rather than high-flown abstractions about political correctness and artistic and journalistic freedom, they would save us all an awful lot of grief.
But Balding herself is starting to make mistakes, seeing Gill's remarks in a wider context of media/cultural ‘homophobia'. Sounding rather like a cut-price Martin Luther King, she declares: ‘I am not one to cry out in pain unless I think someone else is being hurt as well. In this instance, I do believe that many others have and will be hurt.'
Which is all very well — but why can't Balding be hurt simply for herself? After all, it is her breasts and her backside being used for a few cheap sniggers over our Sunday brunch.
To quote the old maxim, the personal is the political. If we live in a society where vulgarity, rudeness and cruelty are not challenged directly for what they are, then we're making our popular culture little more than a theatre of humiliation and belittlement where, quite simply, anything goes and no blow is too low.
For the record, I don't think AA Gill is ‘homophobic'. No, I just think he was being callous and using Balding's lesbianism, along with her looks, as a convenient stick with which to beat her. Not because she is a lesbian or she's bad at her job. Not even because Britain by Bike is a poor programme.
No, it's just because beating people up is giving the people what they want. Welcome to Blood and Circuses, 21st century style.