An Open Letter To The BBC Regarding The N-Word

Following the dismissal of David Lowe – your golden oldies DJ down in Devon, I thought I’d drop you a few lines to let you know how I felt.
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It’s been about two weeks now since the nation’s favourite arsehole, Jeremy Clarkson, put his foot in it. Again. But then Lowe came along. I bet you’d never heard of him until he played The Sun Has Got Its Hat on his radio show last Sunday. Like 99.9% of the population, he probably didn’t even know there was a second verse, let alone a second verse with the N-word in it. After one complaint, your knee jerked and you sacked him, which was a mistake.

Don’t get me wrong, the word ‘Nigger’ will never top my favourites list, but banishing it to the land of bad words (without explanation), only gets people’s backs up. It just gives Daily Telegraph readers something else to chew on.

The N-word carries so much festering historical baggage, it makes other racial slurs look like comic relief.

I might have mentioned the fact that it started life as the fairly generic Latin term for black, before being hijacked by slave owners who turned it into something disgusting: a handy little insult designed to dehumanise and humiliate blacks in one go. When slavery ended the word stuck around, just in case there was any doubt about who was still running the show.

When the N-word slipped into everyday life and popular culture, it was accepted. For whites it was an effective putdown, and for blacks it was just another thing they couldn’t do anything about. It tainted so much popular culture, for so many years, you now believe that huge chunks of it are too taboo for a modern audience.  But it's all about context.

If I come across the N-word in an old book, believe it or not, I don’t rip the pages out and set fire to them. When I watched the film The Dam Busters, the canine character's name, Nigger, didn’t make me blow up the telly. And there’s every chance that if I’d heard David Lowe’s gaff I wouldn’t have carved the word ‘outrage’ into my forehead. Why? Because it’s something from the past, it’s still a part of history that people should be aware of and, to be honest, there’s nothing I can do about it in the 21st century.
On the flipside, if someone walked up to me tomorrow and whispered it into my ear, I’d be upset. You see...context.

I know you’re aware of context because the N-word ban doesn't extend to all parts of the BBC. Some of your stations - especially the ones aimed at a ‘yoof’ or ‘urban’ audiences - don’t mind a bit of the N-word, especially if the artist’s black. You managed to broadcast the whole of Jay Z’s N-word-riddled ‘Black Album’ in 2010, without so much as a whiff of Zane Lowe's P45.

The N-word is complex, complicated further by the fact that black people use it. If I had a pound for everyone who’s ever said: ‘well, black people can say it, so why can’t I?’ I’d be at least £10 richer.

To be honest, I’m not mad keen on anyone saying it in a modern context, white or black. It’s disconcerting to hear white people say it because there's always the (faint, in most cases), possibility that there's something more behind it - no matter how many how many 'As' and 'Zs' you shove on the end of it. And when black people say it, it’s still just weird sometimes. Even when it’s funny,  it can still feel like a slap from beyond.

The funny thing is, even black people can’t agree on it. Ice Cube, Chris Rock, 50 Cent and a host of others have all argued cases for using the word, either as an insult, slang or camaraderie. For others it was a complete no-go. Take '70s comedian, Richard Pryor. In the good old days, most of Pryor’s stand up revolved around the N-word but then he took a trip to Africa and changed his mind. In his autobiography, he describes an epiphany in Nairobi airport. As he looked around at all the beautiful black people, there wasn’t one ‘Nigger’ in sight, he said. He dropped the word from his act after that.

BBC, what would I do if I were you? Who knows: maybe I’d kickstart a more nuanced, constructive debate and manage controversies on a case-by-case basis. Instead of sacking people, I’d look at my workforce to make sure it represents something other than the older, predominantly white middle classes. You said you were going to buck your ideas up about that back in 2005, when we worked together. Remember?

Even your own Director General dissed you as being 'hideously white' and you made a lame attempt to do something about it. You hit a few quotas and arranged a few ‘diversity’ meetings, but seemed laughably oblivious to the fact that the majority of your black staff worked in the canteen and on security. I don’t think you’ve tried very hard.

Maybe if you thought a bit more about these things, your next N-word-related gaff might not be so painful.

Just a thought.