NEW POLL: was the BBC right to ban Carol Thatcher from The One Show?

by Stephen Tall on February 5, 2009

I’ve avoided for as long as possible the uber-hyped ‘nowtrage’ over Carol Thatcher’s off-air-but-in-the-studio comment that a still-to-be-identified tennis player looks like a ‘golliwog’.

It does of course pose lots of interesting questions for liberals: the conflict between freedom of speech, and the offence that may cause; to what extent unbroadcast behind-the-scenes remarks should be regarded as private; whether remarks that cause offence are best dealt with by individuals at the time, rather than by being referred to an ombudsmanperson.

The Lib Dem blogosphere has wrestled with many of these issues and more, and given more time to the issue than I have the heart for, here:

>> Liberals should be supporting Carol Thatcher (‘Costigan Quist’ at Himmelgarten Cafe);
>> Carol Thatcher – an issue of free speech? (Paul Walter at Liberal Burblings); and
>> Carol Thatcher, praying nurses and the abolition of private life (Jonathan Calder at Liberal England).

What depresses me about the ensuing debate (with the honourable exceptions above) is quite how tired and predictable it has so quickly become, with battle-lines drawn generally along political lines.

Many on the right argue that Ms Thatcher’s banning once again displays the BBC’s deplorable, hypocritical, political-correctness-gone-mad standards (slipping thereof). Many on the left argue that anyone who sticks up for Carol Thatcher is, pretty much by extension, a racist. Both arguments strike me as rather pathetically extreme.

My view? The word ‘golliwog’ may be considered by some to be innocuous (and, yes, I too had a golliwog soft toy as a child) but its imagery and association is racially-charged. For generations, it was the image for millions of ‘what black people look like’, only one step away from that ultimate phrase of unconscious racism, ‘they all look the same to me’. As far as I know, there is no equivalent soft toy held to represent a single image of ‘what white people look like’. There’s a reason for that: we all look different, and we’re all individuals. That is why the label ‘golliwog’ became associated with racial stereotyping, and why the term itself is generally regarded as a racial insult.

So, Carol Thatcher was, in my view, wrong to use the word ‘golliwog’, however jokily/ironically/post-modernly. That she did so, unthinkingly, in front of people she didn’t know, on BBC premises, while being paid by the BBC, gives them the right to discipline her in a proportionate manner. This they did by offering her the opportunity to make a full apology, and when she declined to do so, exercising their rights as her employer to ban her from the show she was contributing to at the time of the incident.

It then became – for no good reason – a national furore, with the incident used by those with their own agendas to score political points off each other. All of which I find deeply tedious.

But let’s open this up to the LDV readership, and ask:

Do you think the BBC was justified in banning Carol Thatcher from The One Show for using the term ‘golliwog’?

Yes or No?

Over to you…

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No comments

I’m afraid I don’t buy that someone as politically sensitive and used to being in the public eye as Carol Thatcher is capable of using the term “golliwog” entirely innocently. There may not have been an outright racist intent behind it, but she ought to know better. That she refused to apologise for it just dots the Is and crosses the Ts.

by Andy Hinton on February 5, 2009 at 3:15 pm. Reply #

As far as I know, there is no equivalent soft toy held to represent a single image of ‘what white people look like’.


The modern hysteria over “they all look the same to me” is misplaced. It is entirely normal that a population will “look the same” to a new observer. Someone who has never seen a cat before will think that a leopard, cheetah and jaguar all look the same. That doesnt make them a bigot – it makes them someone who doesnt have experience of cats.

What would be a problem is if they say “they all look the same to me… therefore they all ARE the same.”

by MBoy on February 5, 2009 at 3:23 pm. Reply #

If you say something without thinking, and it offends someone, isn’t it only good manners to apologise?

by Anonymous on February 5, 2009 at 3:38 pm. Reply #

In my Young Liberal days we (or some of us) used to refer to a certain local (Lib Dem) councillor as golliwog because of his hairstyle. Was it offensive? Only to the gentleman concerned. Was it racist? Definitely not!

by crewegwyn on February 5, 2009 at 4:02 pm. Reply #

Is it racist or in any way offensive to call a redhead a “Belischa beacon” or a Nordic blonde a “snowman”?

And was it racist for Enid Blyton to create a character called “Gilbert Golly”? Should Noddy books be censored?

by Sesenco on February 5, 2009 at 5:04 pm. Reply #

MBoy –


Really? Not sure she really represents a single image of 100% of white people (or even 52% of white women for that matter).

Someone who has never seen a cat before will think that a leopard, cheetah and jaguar all look the same.

Well, maybe. But someone who has lived for some while in a society surrounded by cats, leopards, cheetahs and jaguars would be thought to be both silly and insensitive if they kept on referring to them all by the name cats.

crewegwyn / Sesenco –

Depends on the intent with which these things are said – maliciously, or affectionately? Context matters.

For once I agree wholeheartedly with Danny Finkelstein – courtesy Malcolm Gladwell – here: content, intent and conviction are the best criteria by which to judge if a remark is racist.

by Stephen Tall on February 5, 2009 at 5:47 pm. Reply #

Stephen, I’ve voted based on the idea that the question you meant to ask was “Was the BBC correct in enforcing the terms and conditions in its employment contract by asking Thatcher to apologise for her breach and then letting her go after she chose not to do so”

I care not that she made a stupid offensive joke. I care that, when told she’d offended people she didn’t mean to, she stood on her pride instead of apologising.

Clear breach of contract, they could’ve sacked her immediately, but gave her a chance to apologise, she refused. Her choice.

by MatGB on February 5, 2009 at 6:09 pm. Reply #

It’s interesting that these high-profile cases usually seem to involve racist rather than sexist remarks.

When I was a PPC a leading member of my local party thought it was OK to make a remark comparing the breast size of two councillors. On another occasion a male Lib Dem councillor complained that a Tory councillor was a “cow” and “needed to be milked”.

When I protested about these remarks it was made pretty clear to me that the comments were fine because they were made in good humour and in private meetings.

by Ruth Bright on February 5, 2009 at 7:26 pm. Reply #

I’ve made my position clear on my blog:

by meral ece on February 5, 2009 at 7:46 pm. Reply #

Sorry, I don’t get. Surely being the child of ‘She’ should be enough toget her banned?

by Martin Land on February 5, 2009 at 8:02 pm. Reply #

Ruth – couldn’t agree more.

by Perennially Bored on February 6, 2009 at 12:45 am. Reply #


The BBC fires Carol Thatcher for using the term “golliwog”, once, off the air, with little indication of what the context was, but only suspends for three months Jonathan Ross, who deliberately targets over a sustained period on the air, an old guy, Andrew Sachs.

Does this mean that publicly attacking someone on the air is not as bad as using a term that people consider racist in a small conversation? I know which I think will set a worse example for our society. Many people seem to hold the elderly in near contempt. Racism is rightly denounced; Ageism, apparently less so. On the other hand, perhaps Jonathan Ross was too famous to be sacked.

What price liberty – About £4 million a year?

by David Evans on February 6, 2009 at 4:53 pm. Reply #

Or perhaps, David, Jonathan Ross apologised immediately and profusely for his mistake, while Carol Thatcher passed off hers as ‘just a joke’?

by Stephen Tall on February 6, 2009 at 5:06 pm. Reply #

David, that comment and the facts bear tangential relationship, but only just.

Ross was suspended completely from all shows and BBC work for 3 months for his behaviour.

Thatcher was informed that she needed to apologise to her colleagues for her behaviour with them or else not work on that television show, and chose to not work for them instead of make an apology.

Ross issued a full apology (several times), Thatcher has not. Ross was prevented from all BBC work on all channels for 3 months, Thatcher has been removed from one specific television show.

She wasn’t fired for the remark. She chose not to apologise. Her choice.

She is still free to work on other shows, and has thus not been fired by the BBC. I can’t see any relationship whatsoever myself.

by MatGB on February 6, 2009 at 5:09 pm. Reply #

Ross did not apologise for several days after the event, his first apology was sung on tv with Brand. Do you think if Andrew Sachs had been black Ross would still be in his job, no of course he wouldn’t.

Adrian Chiles is a back stabber and a nasty little man, I have he get his just desserts. Jo Brand is a foul mouthed nothing, she belongs in the dustbin.

by Lesley Newland and Philippa Devoy on February 12, 2009 at 5:53 pm. Reply #

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