Since last Thursday’s episode of BBC Question Time, actor Laurence Fox has been at the centre of much controversy about his perception of racism. But the debate over his trollish arguments may be occluding a more significant issue.
During a debate over whether media treatment of Meghan Markle revealed wider cultural racism in Britain, Rachel Boyle, a woman of colour, audience member and academic, said: “Let’s be really clear about what this is, let’s call it by its name, it’s racism.” Fox responded that discussions of racism in Britain were “really starting to get boring now,” and accused Boyle of reverse racism for pointing out that he is a “white, privileged male”. Since then, the actor has been busy making an apparent campaign to become the new poster boy for the populist right. In an interview with Talk Radio, Fox said the response to his remarks from “wokeists” felt like someone saying “I want to unload both barrels of a shotgun in your face”. In a further interview, he explained why he won’t date “woke women” – a feeling one has to assume must now be mutual.
One has to wonder why the BBC invited Fox on Question Time, one of its flagship political affairs programmes, in the first place. It is not unheard of for figures from popular culture to participate, but Fox’s recent film and TV credits do not make him a timely choice – unless, that is, whether the producers of the show discussed in advance his position on the topics to be debated, and welcomed a participant who would deliver a backlash against what has become known as “wokeness”?
While Fox’s comments have been criticised, what has yet has gone entirely unscrutinised is Fiona Bruce’s response as an independent chair of the Question Time debate.
The exchange between Boyle and Fox ended with the actor accusing a woman of colour of “being racist”, as part of the charge that identifying his white privilege is in itself racist, rather than simply illustrative of why he might not personally experience the UK as a place which can be hostile to people of colour. Boyle tried to respond, but was cut off by Bruce, who remarked: “I’m not taking a view either way, I just want to add in that Priti Patel, the home secretary, also took the view that it wasn’t racism. I’m not making a judgement on that.”
It seems to us that Bruce arguably evokes Patel as “evidence” to dispute Boyle’s position. Patel’s identity as a woman of colour appears to play a part here; it seems to be used as a form of authenticity and personal testimony, which is why it proved useful to Bruce as a final word on which to close down the discussion and move on. Yet in doing so, in our opinion, Boyle’s own authority as a woman of colour is dismissed. Bruce claims she is not “taking a view either way".
For Patel to be used as “evidence” in this argument is also questionable. As the UK Women’s Equality Party said of Theresa May, gender is not enough: “for a woman’s power to be truly consequential, she must wield it with an understanding of how it will affect the lives of other women.” Likewise, Patel’s racial identity is not enough; she must wield her power as home secretary with attention to how it affects other people of colour. Clare Collier, advocacy director at the human rights group Liberty, has said that Patel’s voting record has previously rejected “basic human rights protections”, such as supporting Theresa May’s hostile environment policies and voting against rights for asylum seekers. Patel’s visibility as a woman of colour does not automatically equal a progressive perspective.
Research by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found in 2015 that only 0.2 per cent of UK journalists are black Britons, and just 7 per cent are Asian Britons. Meanwhile, despite multiple diversity initiatives, BAME representation in the BBC remains low, with just 9.6 per cent BAME employment among BBC programme creators in 2016/17. This makes the role of chair of an esteemed show as BBC Question Time such a privileged one, granting a power that needs to be wielded with independence.
Dr Hannah Yelin is a senior lecturer in media and culture at Oxford Brookes University. Dr Laura Clancy is an ESRC postdoctoral fellow in the department of sociology at Lancaster University. They co-authored this piece