Playing With Fire – On A Screen Near You

The BBC has sacked a broadcaster for tweeting a so-called ‘racist’ picture, while a baseball team banned a fan for making a ‘White Supremacist’ sign on TV. Why do we choose to communicate our thoughts in obscure signals and images?

A fire art display


The mainstay of British broadcasting for almost 40 years lost his job with BBC Radio yesterday – for a ‘stupid unthinking’ tweet and picture likening the new, mixed-race Royal Baby to a chimpanzee. 

He has taken (again) to Twitter and other media to protest that he didn’t mean the tweet to be racist, but there is no doubt that he had to go.

Pretty much everyone who saw it would conclude that he was making a point about race, not class, and missing the (however unintended) racist connotations of his tweet was such a big, public, fuck up that the BBC had to do the right thing. 

To his credit, Baker has said that he is “rightly” paying the price for a “crass and regrettable blunder”, adding that this had been the worst week of his life. 

But he is not the only white guy having a bad week because of an ill-advised – and possibly racist – public gesture.

Also under fire was an unnamed Chicago Cubs fan, who made an inverted ‘OK’ gesture while standing behind a black TV reporter covering a game on Tuesday.

The Cubs said the signal was “more likely than not” to be racist and banned him indefinitely from their Wrigley Field stadium.

Meanwhile the reporter – Doug Glanville – praised the decision to ban the fan, saying that it showed “sensitivity as to how the implications of this would affect me as a person of colour.”

Unlike Baker, the fan has apparently chosen to stay silent, which means he cannot enlighten us as to whether he meant the gesture as a White Supremacist one or not. Which is a shame, as there does seem to be at least a little ambiguity about precisely what the sign means. 

For example, a BBC report yesterday said it was “unclear how the inverted ‘OK’ gesture became associated with ‘white power'”.

Meanwhile, my net-savvy teenaged son thought that the sign had originally been a playground joke, similar to bunny ears, that resurfaced as a (non-racist) meme on the Internet last year. 

Now, I am not quibbling about the whether we should be punishing people who make racist gestures: in my opinion, both Baker and the fan deserve their punishments, and particularly the latter, who reportedly failed to respond to repeated calls from Cubs staff investigating  the incident. 

What fascinates me here is how we increasingly seem to speak to each other in signals in this TV and Internet age – like the cool but (to me) incomprehensible hand gestures that athletes make to the cameras before a televised race and the sometimes elaborate choreography that follows a soccer goal. 

Many signals are not easily understood, such as the – anti-semitic or anti-establishment?–  ‘quenelle’ gesture at West Ham that saw footballer Nicolas Anelka banned for five matches and fined £80,000 in 2014. 

But very often – like Anelka’s, and like Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri’s pro-Albanian ‘double eagle’ gestures at last year’s World Cup – they end up getting the people who make them into a heap of trouble.

Baker and the Cubs fan are just the latest two to mess up, big time. 

So why bother throwing these funny shapes? Perhaps part of it is that we are all on screen now. We are all entertainers and we need to keep people watching.

Today, we all need to have a presence, if not on TV or radio then on ‘social’, which is maybe one of the reasons someone like Baker felt he needed to tweet his views on the Royal Family with us. 

Meanwhile, talking seems to be out. Footballers and even rugby players have started to cover their mouths with their hands for fear that what they say will be picked up on camera and lip-read – as if anyone would be that interested, guys. 

Most athletes are media trained to squeeze the life and originality out of whatever they say in broadcast interviews, and many now prefer to ‘speak’ direct to us via platforms such as Twitter or Instagram, with varying degrees of success.

Manchester City footballer Raheem Stirling has recently been praised for his – thoughful and brave – anti-racist messages on social media. But others have signally failed to demonstrate such a mastery of the technology. 

For example, Daley Blind (then Manchester United) and Victor Anichebe (Sunderland) rather obviously cut-and-pasted corporate messages, prepared for them by others, without deleting the bits that told them what to do.

Striker Christian Benteke blamed his media ‘people’ for claiming that he’d signed for ‘Burnleyl’ (sic) instead of Crystal Palace, which was the club actually offering paying his wages.

Aston Villa’s Joleon Lescott also felt it politic to apologise after supposedly ‘pocket tweeting’ a picture of a luxury sports car shortly after a 6-0 defeat to Liverpool. 

This week has also bought news of two prominent women – MP Jess Philips and football pundit Alex Scott – enduring vile abuse online solely because of their gender.

Which convinces me that signing up to social media at all is like playing with fire – but, on the other hand, it’s what we’ve got now. 

Twitter may be a ‘honeypot for assholes’, as one tech company insider put it, due to the fact that it allows users to tag complete strangers.

​But if this blog is going to be a success, if I want anyone to read it, I’m going to have to sign up. 

I’m – frankly – shitting myself about the abuse I’m going to get. Or worse still, not get because I’ve been ignored.

But most of all, I’m going to check all my photos very, very carefully. 

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