Clare Balding in north Devon in episode 1 of her new BBC show Britain by Bike Photograph: Bbc
The BBC presenter Clare Balding is embroiled in a furious row over a newspaper columnist’s “homophobic” remarks about her sexuality. The 39-year-old sports journalist has lodged a complaint with the Press Complaints Commission following a review of her new programme, Britain by Bike, by the Sunday Times‘s TV and restaurant critic, AA Gill.
Balding, who is gay, complained to the newspaper’s editor, John Witherow, about the tone of the article. But, she said, she was then even more horrified by Witherow’s response.
Gill had written: “Some time ago, I made a cheap and frankly unnecessary joke about Clare Balding looking like a big lesbian. And afterwards somebody tugged my sleeve to point out that she is a big lesbian.”
After a mock apology, he continued: “Now back to the dyke on a bike, puffing up the nooks and crannies at the bottom end of the nation.”
Balding complained to Witherow. She was then “appalled” to receive a reply stating: “In my view some members of the gay community need to stop regarding themselves as having a special victim status and behave like any other sensible group that is accepted by society.
“Not having a privileged status means, of course, one must accept occasionally being the butt of jokes. A person’s sexuality should not give them a protected status.
“Jeremy Clarkson, perhaps the epitome of the heterosexual male, is constantly jeered at for his dress sense (lack of), adolescent mindset and hairstyle. He puts up with it as a presenter’s lot and in this context I hardly think that AA Gill’s remarks were particularly cruel, especially as he ended by so warmly endorsing you as a presenter.”
Balding responded: “When the day comes that people stop resigning from high office, being disowned by their families, getting beaten up and in some instances committing suicide because of their sexuality, you may have a point.
“This is not about me putting up with having the piss taken out of me, something I have been quite able to withstand, it is about you legitimising name calling. ‘Dyke’ is not shouted out in school playgrounds (or as I’ve had it at an airport) as a compliment, believe me.”
She added: “I am happy to be described as a lesbian, as and when relevant, but ‘dyke’ is too often used as a pejorative and insulting term.”
Balding told the Guardian: “I just think there is a time when you say enough is enough. I can take pretty much anything. Words are just words. I’ve been through a lot worse. But this has a huge impact on lots of other people and that’s why I thought: ‘That’s not on.’
“If I said something like that on the BBC I would be sacked in two minutes.
“One can’t change AA Gill. But I am really disappointed in the editorial stance of the Sunday Times. Is it supposed to be OK because Gill was nice about me at the end? And how can you compare it to someone having a go at Jeremy Clarkson’s dress sense? I have to make a stand on this. This is not just about me, and that’s why it is important.
“This is in defence of people being allowed to live their lives and not have names shouted at them.”
The spat is being followed by thousands of people on Twitter. Balding, who made her debut on the microblogging site earlier this week to call Gill a “twat”, is now seeking advice from fellow tweeter Stephen Fry. Last night former the Labour deputy leader John Prescott tweeted his support for Balding, referring to Gill as “a shit”.
A spokesman for the PCC confirmed that a complaint had been received from Balding under clause 12 (discrimination) of the editors’ code of practice, and would be considered by the commission.
No one was available to comment at the Sunday Times.