If Alan Sugar can’t see why his Senegal ‘joke’ is racist, then sack him

Dawn Butler
Alan Sugar’s comments are a clear breach of the BBC’s code of conduct. Photograph: Jim Marks/BBC/PA

There’s no question that Alan Sugar’s tweet comparing the players in the Senegal national football team to people selling sunglasses and handbags on beaches is racist and deeply offensive. He tweeted a photo of the team, saying, “I recognise some of these guys from the beach in Marbella. Multi tasking resourceful chaps.” This included a photo of sunglasses and handbags laid out for sale, just to make the comparison crystal clear.

Whether it was intended to be a “joke” or not is irrelevant. It’s an unacceptable thing for anyone to say, but is particularly distressing to see from a member of the House of Lords and someone with their own programme on the BBC. The fact that Lord Sugar couldn’t seem to comprehend why it was offensive demonstrates how deep-rooted racism is in our society.

I am writing to the House of Lords commissioner for standards to ask for an immediate investigation. Racism has no place in society or in our parliament, and swift action must be taken to demonstrate that. Parliament is supposed to represent our diverse society. How can it do that if its members make comments that belong in another century?

Lord Sugar’s tweet about the Senegal World Cup squad, which has since been deleted. Photograph: Lord Sugar/Twitter/PA

I will also be writing to the BBC to ask them to conduct their own investigation. As our state broadcaster, funded by the public, it has a responsibility to represent the diversity of our society and uphold our values of equality and respect.

However, the BBC’s response didn’t fill me with confidence. After Sugar apologised for causing any offence, the BBC said that this was sufficient, even though the apology came after he defended his so-called joke, telling those offended to get a sense of humour.

Ironically, his tweet went out on the same day the BBC launched its new diversity policy, saying it was a significant step forward in ensuring it represents the ethnic diversity of our society. But I find it hard to see how this can mark a moment of real change if the BBC is already refusing to take action on a racist comment by one of its key figures.

I think many people will rightly be appalled that their licence fee is subsidising someone with such bigoted views. When Roseanne Barr posted her racist and Islamophobic tweet about Obama’s former White House adviser, she rightly lost her programme.

Sugar’s comments are a clear breach of the BBC’s code of conduct, which says disciplinary action will be taken against anyone who crosses the line. He shouldn’t be exempt because of his high profile. How can we hope to eliminate racism from our society if comments like these from such individuals go unchallenged?

If Sugar can’t demonstrate that he truly understands why his tweet was unacceptable, derogatory and demeaning, he should be pulled from the BBC’s programming schedule.

• Dawn Butler is Labour’s shadow women and equalities minister