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Until a few days ago, Danny Baker was a DJ on BBC Radio Five Live, known for his outspokenness, working-class accent and humour. At 61, he is of the old school—a “motormouth,” as his friend Janet Street-Porter, a newspaper editor, affectionately described him—and the recipient of several awards for his work. Then he took to Twitter to tell a joke that, had it been told to his colleagues in the studio, most likely would have been met with a “come off it, Danny.”
He posted a black-and-white photo of a smartly dressed couple, holding hands with a chimpanzee baby, accompanied by the words: “Royal baby leaves hospital.” A few hours later, he was fired, and a day later, a police enquiry into the joke was announced.
Making a joke that could easily be seen as racist, noting the mixed-race heritage of little Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor, the newborn son of Prince Harry and half African-American Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, predictably set off a Twitter storm and widespread condemnation. Many would argue rightly so—the joke was crude, and it was also very clumsy, as the long history of comparing black people to apes should be common knowledge. Baker promptly deleted the tweet and apologized.
Following one of the worst days of my life I just want to formally apologise for the outrage I caused and explain how I got myself into this mess. I chose the wrong photo to illustrate a joke. Disastrously so. In attempting to lampoon privilege & the news cycle I went to a file of goofy pictures & saw the chimp dressed as a Lord and thought, “That’s the one!” Had I kept searching I might have chosen General Tom Thumb or even a baby in a crown. But I didn’t. God knows I wish had.
Baker said it had slipped his mind that the royal baby wasn’t white. He simply didn’t connect the dots before he pressed enter. In this age, where intent doesn’t seem to matter, the natural decision for the BBC was to sack Baker and thereby signaling that racist jokes are off the table.
It’s a stance it’s easy to agree on, in principle, as the opposite could be taken as proof the broadcasting company endorsed comparing the royal baby to a monkey. But losing your livelihood over a joke is not funny.
The feelings of the royal couple may have been hurt, of that we don’t know. But what effect did the tweet have, other than to highlight one elderly man’s hapless attempt at being funny? Perhaps the reactions to the tweet were more palpable than the tweet itself. I don’t know anyone who would find this laugh-out-loud funny, apart from perhaps a child—or perhaps they might just find the chimp baby cute.
The message from the BBC was: put one foot wrong, and you’re out. Baker, from Bermondsey, East London, left school at 14 and worked his way up, starting out selling records, then moved on to journalism and comedy writing, before stepping into broadcasting. His friend and editor of the Independent, Janet Street-Porter, wrote:
Danny Baker is not a racist. Over-hasty, excitable, a blabbermouth – but not racist. I gave Danny his first job in television, back in 1980. We’d met a few years earlier when he ran a fanzine called Sniffin’ Glue, and I was making a documentary about punk. Danny had turned down a place at grammar school and left secondary modern at 14, worked in a record shop and later boasted he had flogged stuff to Elton John. His motor mouth was legendary, even back in the 1980s.
Danny cannot take any kind of criticism or comment without flying off the handle—exactly like me. Once, I phoned and asked him to stop what he was doing and return to the office. He ran to London’s South Bank from Carnaby Street and collapsed unable to breathe—I dragged him to the local A&E department where doctors confirmed it was nothing more than a fit of rage and fury and he had to be talked down.
This sort of unhinged personality doesn’t seem to gel well with the current climate of hypersensitivity. If you’re a public person, it’s safer keeping quiet in case you offend anyone, as the backlash might not be worth the bother.
This is sad, for it makes the country less quintessentially British. The UK is known for its particular kind of wit—often subtle, sometimes caustic, and full of irony—and risks losing its comedic reputation when enough of these incidents of wrongspeak are over-corrected and over-punished. We should count our lucky stars the PC police weren’t out in force when John Cleese and company made their now archetypically British comedy Fawlty Towers in the late seventies.
Danny Baker isn’t known to have a history of racist behavior. What really goes on in his mind, is nobody’s business but his own. But should we assume that he’s telling the truth, or suspiciously refuse his apologies?
Anyone can THINK the wrong thing, but might stop themselves in their tracks and simply choose to be quiet so as to not risk offending anyone. Baker’s filter clearly didn’t function very well that day. Alarm bells should have been ringing. But they didn’t, and for that, he’s paying with his career.
His appearance for the cameras, talking to journalists, showed his critics as an unkempt, unshaven male past middle age, with a cockney accent—of course, he must have meant harm. If we go along with the “we’re all racists” line of thinking—critical race theory’s core message—then yes, he SHOULD lose his job. Or we could choose to give him the benefit of the doubt.
His fellow Englishman, the comedian Ricky Gervais, puts it like this: “If you don’t believe in free speech for people who you hate, fear and disagree with, then you don’t believe in free speech.”
Danny Baker may not be the most charming of characters—that’s subjective, of course, and he has both friends and foes, fans and critics—but if we believe that a society that punishes poor attempts at comedy so harshly they deserve police investigations, we risk losing not just our sense of humor, but our ability to think.
The right to be wrong has to be defended in a world where we always strive to be seen as being right.