More than two decades have passed since I worked alongside Danny Baker on the original BBC Radio 5 breakfast show. I learned a lot from Baker, a presenter who was able to sound so informal on air and generous in drawing whoever was in the studio into whatever was happening. “Joshing”, he called it. As the newsreader I was there every day. His ‘long-suffering sidekick’, as I was once described.
Clearly, I am not wholly objective. Working every morning with Danny Baker for several years has left me with a fondness and appreciation for the chap even though it is a long time since we last spoke. Other commentators, including his friend, Janet Street-Porter, writing in the Independent have covered Danny’s East End, working-class roots and his rashness but innate decency. Guardian columnist Gaby Hinsliff recounted movingly how Baker used humour in his own battle with cancer. But Hinsliff reminded us that there must always be a limit to where laughter can take us.
I wouldn’t for a moment seek to defend the tweet Baker sent in reference to the Royal Baby. It was wrong. And I understand and empathise with the distress and anger felt by so many at the image that Danny shared. As a woman from an ethnicity that has suffered centuries of abuse in visual satire, I understand the sense of outrage.
It is also right that people in positions of influence are held to the highest of standards. The BBC had no choice but to sever its ties with Danny Baker and it was right that it took that step. But what I would say is that I hope this incident – for which Baker has rightly apologised – is not the end of the road for him.
What I can contribute about Baker comes directly from working with him. At a time when other comics – including household names who guested on the show – would go for easy laughs, including sexist jokes, Danny never did.
In contrast, Danny’s comedy resided in his love of whimsy. It was because of this that I bought him Lewis Carroll’s Hunting of the Snark as a gift when we left Radio 5 and more of the same classic nonsense humour when he was seriously ill.
Just sometimes, though, Danny’s irreverence or his love of nonsense and the absurd, would get me into trouble. One morning — not the one where I turned up with a coat thrown over my pyjamas to read the 6am news, after an alarm-clock malfunction in our pre-web cam studio — he told me to announce on air that planet Earth had shifted fractionally on its rotational axis.
But Danny was not just an on-air ‘joker’. When I was dismissed from my role on the show, it was Baker who stuck up for me. As a result of his intervention, I was reinstated without missing a day.
Danny’s musical tastes demonstrated that he was a person who loved other cultures. He was a presenter who ignored the computer-generated playlists, always bringing in his own collection of records to play on the shows we did at the BBC. He was also always deeply respectful of our armed forces, of ‘Queen and country’, and would rise to stand in silence in the studio for the Last Post on Remembrance Sundays.
As I say, none of this is to defend Baker’s tweet. It is true that Baker’s ‘joke’ contributed to prejudice that is all too common in society. And he should have realised that an image of a chimp in a bowler hat with a walking cane would mean much more than innocent whimsy.
But Danny is, I believe, a bright man who made – without malice – a very stupid error of judgement. He has recognised and apologised for his mistake. And I hope in time, he can be forgiven.
Allis Moss is a freelance journalist and broadcaster. She is also the Voice of the Wimbledon Tennis Championships