The trouble with banter

‘Silly banter between old mates’, explained John Humphrys about the rather less than edifying exchange it was revealed he’d had with Jon Sopel about equal pay. Just a bit of harmless fun then. And it was between friends. Well, how lovely. Who could possibly begrudge a couple of old pals having a bit of a laugh? Especially when one of them is in the twilight of his career. Only a killjoy, surely.

If only it had been harmless fun. Except, of course, it wasn’t. And isn’t. Here, in fact, were two, high profile, extremely well paid, male journalists working for an organisation that it’s claimed is the world’s leading public service broadcaster, subsidised by the great British public. And when he thinks he's out of earshot, one of them lets slip what he really thinks about the equal pay scandal exposed by a colleague's resignation. About women – or indeed anyone it seems – earning as much as him.

And it's far from a bit of fun. Not only is he resentful at the idea of sacrificing some his own humongous salary, he’s still revelling in his male privilege. Because, well, he deserves to be top dog, doesn’t he? The other chap at least appears to have had the nous to realise the studio wasn’t the safest place to have the conversation. But by then the damage has been done. The truth is out. And it's all been recorded.

Like so many others I wasn’t remotely surprised by Humphrys’ remarks or the indefensibility of his explanation. Cue, the bit where I remember to say I love the BBC. Which I do. And that I have been listening to the Today programme since the 1970s when I was in my teens. Which I have. But it’s also the bit where I have to point out that Humphreys’ chauvinism has pretty much destroyed my affection for the programme of late. And that the BBC’s handling of this latest episode has left my love of the institution, well, just a tad careworn.

Even now, I could just shrug my shoulders, put the whole thing down to experience and turn the radio on as if nothing has happened. But am I really to believe that the remarks were nothing more than 'ill-judged' and that because they were made 'off-air', they don't merit disciplinary action? Well, I'm sorry, I can't, because as the New Statesman journalist, Victoria Smith, remarked on Twitter, the episode is no ‘less infuriating for being unsurprising’. Because, as she points out, what it actually reveals is that ‘this backslapping “obviously not openly insulting women all the time is just some annoying social convention” banter is anything but harmless.’

Look up ‘banter’ in the dictionary, you get a noun and a verb. Pretty soon, you see where it can all go wrong. Banter, the noun, is ‘the playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks’ as in, ‘there was much good-natured banter.’ That seems harmless enough, doesn’t it? Perhaps. Though the teasing could be tricky. So before we jump to hasty conclusions, let’s try banter, the verb. It means ‘to exchange remarks in a good-humoured teasing way’ as in, wait for it, ‘the men bantered with the waitresses.’ The genderedness sounds rather less wholesome. Put the definition and the example together and we’re left with the men teasing the women. There might be nothing untoward of course. But you can’t help wondering. What are they actually saying, those men?

Banter can be harmless. But the banter between Humphreys and Sopel wasn’t. And what it reminds us is that neither definition adequately describes the place that banter frequently has in everyday life. Banter, the clubby, apparently inconsequential thing that blokes do. About women, or LGBT people or black people. Anyone who challenges the old order of things really. Banter, the stuff that men say behind closed doors which doesn’t matter because no-one can hear. Or even, banter, the stuff they say out in the open because they don’t really mean it.

Either way, we're supposed to believe it's only ‘meant’ in good humour. It’s just a bit of fun. She, he, they – all know we didn’t mean any harm. Because, you know, it was just banter. So banter's not only the offence, it's the excuse which is supposed to make it alright, the post hoc rationalisation when the offender gets caught. Banter's the double whammy. By the time you hear, it was just banter, you know that it wasn't. Chaucer had it right. Many a true word is spoken in jest. And the unfortunate truth about stuff that gets excused as banter is precisely that.

As a gay man, I know something about banter. I grew up with it at school, in the office, in the sports team. God knows I even went along with it to cover my tracks. Because that’s how it works. It’s not really funny at all. It’s furtive and pervasive. It skulks around in the shadows of decency. It rears its head when learnt behaviour is off guard. It’s the perfect cover for die-hard prejudices. But when push comes to shove, it means what it says on the tin.

Read the Humphrys, Sopel transcript again and think about the subtext. You don’t really believe all that crap about women’s equality, do you? You’re one of us, aren’t you? We can have a bit of banter, can’t we? It’s just harmless fun, eh? Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink. Say no more. They’ll never know. The microphone’s off. Oh, bloody hell. It was on. Well, never mind, it was just banter, wasn’t it?

Oh and in just in case you’re thinking, there’s the bloody thought police again. There’s political correctness gone mad. Two old pals can’t even have a laugh in – semi – private anymore. Well, actually, I like a bit of banter. But it doesn’t have to be at the expense of others. It doesn’t have to reinforce stereotypes. Or bully. Or discriminate. It doesn't, and it shouldn't, pour scorn on laws which provide redress. Or fly in the face of the values of the institution I work for which I claim to uphold, even believe in.

Sure, banter can sometimes just be a bit of a laugh. But the trouble with banter is that, often, it isn’t funny at all.

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