March 20th, 1982
To the Director General of the BBC
I am writing to protest at the racist content of a remark made by one of the presenters of the Today programme on Wednesday March 17th.
The remark in question followed an item on the medicinal use of leeches.
The presenter claimed to have been told that anyone who had seen the film “The African Queen” – which he had not done, as he had not been to the cinema for the last 35 years – “would have seen a number of large, black, slug-like objects; you might also have seen some leeches…” pause for laughter from his colleague.
I am aware that degrading innuendo of this kind is considered fair currency among the ignorant and the insensitive; I am aware that in objecting to it I am opening myself to charges of obsessiveness; but until that moment I had shared a naïve belief in the underlying Good Nature of the BBC as an institution, and was physically and emotionally shaken to hear such a sinister slur being given its sanction.
I rang the Today office immediately, and when on the third attempt I was able to speak to the producer, I was told, predictably enough, that no offence had been intended. In a way, I can believe that; as I said, such ‘jokes’ are considered fair game, particularly as they provide a certain flexing of the intellectual muscles. But it is precisely because their implied racism is often at an unconscious level that it is so difficult and so important to eradicate it. I would put it to you, however, that if no offence had truly been intended, the ‘joke’ would not have been conceived in the first place.
I would also put it to you that not only could the remark be taken to be guilty of the incitement to racial hatred (on the lines of an association between African, black, slug and leech) at the surface level, in the minds of those white people listening, but that any black people listening, and thus hearing their perceptions of institutionalised white racism confirmed, would be further provoked to suspicion and intolerance.
I would be curious to know whether the same remark would be given your sanction had the programme been going out on the World Service? And if not, why it should be sanctioned for home consumption.
Copies of this letter are being sent to Campaign against Racism in the Media, to the Race Relations subcommittee of the NUJ, to the Commission for Racial Equality, and to Harmony.
I look forward to having a satisfactory reply from you to the issues I have raised, and to hearing what action you propose to take in respect of the producer and presenters of Today; and in the pursuit of tolerance in broadcasting in the future.
Yours faithfully ……