Is privacy an excuse?

There have been many acres of type, both real and virtual, on the subject of the departure of Andy Gray and Richard Keys from Sky Sports. Most of it has concentrated on the 18th Century attitude to women in general which pervades much of what is cringingly describe as “football banter”.

It is a fact that much of the “banter” is of this sort. Internet messageboards and “all boy” workplaces alike talk about “smashing it” in exactly the way that Keys did in the zillionth piece of leaked footage. There’s no arguing that this isn’t how a large portion of male society talks, usually when they’re with other men as they egg each other on to be more outrageous.

And this doesn’t apply just to sexism. Despite what one might call the “media classes” seem to think, racism and gayism is equally prevalent at this level of conversation. (I use “gayism” rather than the accepted term simply because I don’t believe that the majority of its proponents are actually, literally, “homophobic” – it’s just another “difference” to have a laugh at.)

But there’s one undercurrent which is common to all of this chatter – a degree of furtiveness. While the anonymity of the Internet allows some to be a bit braver, if you hear it in person there’s always an unspoken “I hope x isn’t listening”. X might be the boss, or the client, or the Commission for Racial Equality, but the point is that everybody knows that if these sentiments are heard by somebody you can’t totally trust not to pass them on, then the consequences will be pretty dire.

And this is where what I see as one of the more worrying aspects comes in. Many people who work in the media appear to have the notion that provided something isn’t intended for transmission, it doesn’t count. On the day of Andy Gray’s dismissal, Radio 4 presenter Evan Davis tweeted:

I do hope I am never sacked for saying stupid things in private..

He then spent the next hour debating with various commenters, essentially along the lines that although he felt very little sympathy for Gray himself, some people he had more time for had suffered similar fates.

On last night’s Top Gear, Jeremy Clarkson and Boris Becker, two more media professionals (one in a similar position to Gray having previously been a professional sportsman), indulged in a couple of minutes of self-reaffirming discussion about how disgraceful it was that someone should be sacked for off-air comments. It’s almost worth congratulating Clarkson at this point, as he follows the same path I suspect Frankie Boyle has adopted of being more controversial on air than off – if he doesn’t get sacked for the stuff he says in public then he certainly won’t for his more measured private views.

And then just when you thought it had gone away, here comes the thinking man’s Harry Hill, Charlie Brooker, with this article linking illegal phone hacking by major news organisations to the leaking of things said in a studio bristling with cameras and microphones.

Leaving aside that ridiculous non sequitur, the main thrust of the piece is to reinforce the suggestion made over the course of the last week that provided the comments were not intended for public consumption, the consequences should be limited to a warning to be more careful as to who was listening.

This is nonsense on two counts. First, it wouldn’t apply outside the media. If someone was in the process of describing their boss as a clueless idiot as said employer entered the room, they would expect at the very least a bollocking. If their overheard comments extended to a female colleague, or a black one, citing those particular characteristics in relation to their employment (or anything else for that matter), most companies would fire up the Human Resources department. Why should Sky, or the BBC, or any organisation where the listening is done by microphones rather than unanticipated ears, be any different?

Well actually, they should be different for the second reason – because of the potential impact of the comments. The hypothetical employee overheard by their boss or colleague will at most cause a bit of a stir in their department for a week. Slating a female football official (purely and simply on the grounds of gender, remember – the match hadn’t kicked off) provides reinforcement to the legions of football fans who hang on Gray’s words. If Andy Gray says it wasn’t a penalty, that’s enough for many. If Andy Gray makes up a version of the offside law to suit his argument, it will be repeated in pubs and clubs across the country. And if Andy Gray says a woman can’t run the line, then you can be absolutely sure that will be enough for some clown to be in Sian Massey’s ear all the way through every game she officiates.

Gray might well win some settlement from Sky, thanks entirely to the highly dubious way that the footage and audio came to light. That doesn’t mean that Sky were wrong to sack him, and it doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t speak out against bigotry of any type, “private” or otherwise.

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