Back in December, the actor Laurence Fox was featured in the Q&A feature in the Guardian’s Weekend magazine. He was asked how he would like to be remembered. “Not that much of a twat,” he offered.
After the 41-year-old’s appearance on the BBC programme Question Time last week, it’s fair to say that not being a twat is still a work in progress.
Before putting another toe onto this matter, here is a confession: like any sane person, I don’t watch Question Time. I mean to say, why would you? But if you loiter long enough on Twitter, you can’t escape whatever stupid thing was just said.
Before the election, there was the angry audience member who laid into Labour’s plans to tax the top 5% of earners. He got by on £80,000 a year and said he was “nowhere near even the top 50%” of earners. His comments went viral, even though earning £80,000 did indeed put him in the top 5% of earners.
Question Time seems excessively engineered to create such controversy by cashing in on the social media follow-up. That certainly happened last week.
As the panel discussed media treatment of the Duchess of Sussex, Rachel Boyle, a mixed-race lecturer who is a researcher on race and ethnicity, spoke from the audience, saying: “Let’s be really clear about what this is, let’s call it by its name – it’s racism. She’s a black woman and she has been torn to pieces.”
“It’s not racism,” Fox said from the panel, tattoos scrawled across his lounging arms, a sneer sketched across his face. “We’re in the most tolerant, lovely country in Europe. It’s so easy to just throw your charge of racism and it’s starting to get boring now.”
The exchange went viral, with people on both sides jumping in to have their say. Your reaction probably reflects your already set views. I’d say Fox came over as privileged and rude: was he hired because the producers knew he’d oblige with something superior?
Some thought he was being patriotic (whatever that is) and speaking the truth. I’d say that Rachel Boyle rose to her moment and snatched the argument away from Fox, who looked petulant and spoilt.
On Twitter, Fox received backing and hostility. Those who disliked what he’d said had a go at him for being a mediocre member of a posh acting dynasty. Although I won’t support his views on racism, I will endorse his turn as DS Hathaway in Lewis, the Morse spin-off, where he put in an affecting performance.
There are problems with what Fox said, and an accompanying difficulty with commenting on it if you are white. One Twitter comment that stayed with me was the woman who wrote that most of the people deciding whether Meghan Markle had suffered racism were old white men. As a member of that tribe, I can see her point.
Perhaps in their different ways Fox and Boyle are both right: surely it is possible for two contrary things to be true, that racism should exist in a country that is basically tolerant.
In any discussion about racism, black people deserve to be heard more than white people. Fox didn’t think so on Question Time, calling Boyle a racist for describing him as “white privileged male”. Not racist so much as a statement of the bleeding obvious, I’d say.
As it happens, Laurence Fox and Rachel Boyle share space in today’s newspapers. Fox is on the front of the Sunday Times in a blurb reading: “Why I won’t date ‘woke’ women” which suggests that the being a twat thing continues.
A photograph of Boyle is prominent on the front of the Observer, where she discusses her encounter with Fox, and the hostility she has received from the alt right on Twitter and in emails. She adds that such hostility is far outweighed by the positive responses.
You grabbed your moment and shone, Rachel. But I still won’t watch Question Time.