Euan McColm: Danny Baker gives lesson in hubris and humility

Baker speaks to reporters at his London home soon after he was fired. Picture: Victoria Jones/PA Wire
Baker speaks to reporters at his London home soon after he was fired. Picture: Victoria Jones/PA Wire
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The apology was swift but seemed to lack sincerity.

The day after broadcaster Danny Baker posted a tweet that appeared to compare the new royal baby to a chimpanzee, he stood at the front door of his house, fielding questions from the media.

And the 61-year-old was rather defensive.

When it was pointed out to Baker that his “joke” about Archie, son of Harry and Meghan, who is of mixed race, featured an old racist trope about black people, he quickly deleted it and held up his hands.

But on Thursday morning, as he faced the consequences of his actions, which included his dismissal as a presenter on BBC Radio 5 Live, Baker’s ego got in the way. He was sorry, of course, but he hadn’t even realised the image might have been racist because he didn’t have a “diseased mind” (was he really saying that the problem lay with anyone who found the image offensive?) and then there was some stuff about his dismissal in a phone call from a BBC manager. Baker was concerned about the tone of the caller and told him to “f*** off”.

There was more than a touch of the big I ams about this. Yes, I might have posted a racist joke on the internet but I’m Danny Baker and I demand respect.

Watching the story lead the national news that evening, it was hard not to conclude that Baker was entirely deserving of his fate.

Friends - and this is what friends are for - stepped forward to insist that Baker was no racist. The very idea was preposterous.

It’s certainly true, so far as I can see, that Baker hasn’t previously said or done anything that hinted at him holding racist views. But regardless, the image he posted was a racist one. Whether a racist image is posted online by a white supremacist or a seemingly liberal broadcaster, the consequences are the same.

At best, Baker was guilty of carelessness. In the circumstances, this doesn’t amount to much of a defence. Carelessness causes the spread of all sorts of diseases, including racism.

Aware as I am of the irony, in this instance, of a middle-aged white man pronouncing on the actions of another middle-aged white man, I think it is possible to accept Baker possesses no racist instincts despite doing something that, well, a racist might do.

It is possible, too, to think that although Baker may not have had malice in his heart when he tweeted his gag, his dismissal by the BBC is entirely appropriate. If we are serious about combatting racism, a terrible thing in the minds of liberal white people, a terrifying one in the minds of people who happen not to be white, then a zero tolerance approach is the only one to take.

The privilege of being able to walk through life without being hated or discriminated against or beaten or killed because of the colour of one’s skin comes with a responsibility not to feed a racist culture that means others are not so fortunate.

On Friday morning, Danny Baker issued a second apology. It was long and detailed and, although it is always possible to pick away at parts of these things, thoughtful.

These are unforgiving times and for many, Baker’s mea culpa was nothing more than an attempt to salvage his reputation after his initial blokey reaction to the controversy went so terribly badly wrong. It was too little too late, a skin-saving exercise.

This reaction wasn’t at all surprising. The public apology is an increasingly worthless thing, isn’t it.

When someone, generally a politician, is caught up in scandal because of something they’ve said or done, the instinct seems to be to double down for as long as possible. When this strategy inevitably fails and an apology is dragged out, it will be of the flimsiest quality, a patchwork of pitiful qualifications, the most common of which is the offer of an apology “if” anyone was offended.

Nobody ever says “I screwed up, it’s entirely my fault, and I’m sorry”.

Danny Baker, whether you choose to forgive his transgression or not, did that on Friday.

His statement was contrite, devoid of self-pity, and clear. I took from it that Baker fully understood why his actions had been wrong and that he accepted his fate was just.

You may ask why Baker didn’t issue such a statement immediately after deleting his offensive tweet. Why did it take him another day to do the right thing?

But which of us when confronted with evidence of our foolishness has immediately folded? Haven’t we all, at some point in our lives, tried to play down our own idiocy? I know I have and I cringe to remember.

I understand why some might find it difficult to accept Baker’s apology. If one lives every day with the threat of violence simply because of the colour of one’s skin, the broadcaster’s words might not be worth much. The offence has been caused; the damage done.

But in these times of the meaningless non-apology, I applaud Baker for the rather old-fashioned way in which he has accepted full responsibility for his actions.

Some who have criticised Baker say that of course he should have realised the connotations of the image he chose to post, but I wonder if some might entertain the notion that there but for the grace of God…

If racism has no impact on your life, mightn’t it be possible that you don’t always think carefully enough about it, that you don’t always put two and two together?

I do not know whether I can put my hand on my heart and say I have never said or done something which, although I consider racism abhorrent, might have caused legitimate offence.

Baker says he is not a racist and I believe him. But he and many more of us must do more than declare those credentials, we must also be sure we do not, in either word or deed, do anything that enables a racist culture. If we don’t think we can learn from Danny Baker’s experience, we are in danger of being part of the problem.