Gray, Keys, and a note on ‘innocent’ bantering

The behaviours of Andy Gray and Richard Keys have been described as “innocent bantering” . I suggest that the term is an oxymoron. It implies a power relationship which deserves more critical reflection that it usually receives.

My proposition is that bantering is a term which signals a hidden power relationship. The power may be de haut en bas (what royals do because they have been brought up that way to express superiority in a condescending way). Or what less powerful groups do to express inarticulate uncertainties about “the other” (women, football opponents or people of different ethnicity).

Far from innocent

Whatever banter is, the adjective “innocent” is not as appropriate as its use implies. The term innocent bantering has a kind of defensiveness about it. Perhaps it is used to excuse inappropriate behaviour. We can find quite a few examples from actions of members of the royal family.

The Princes Harry and Philip

Stephen Bates in the Guardian, [January 12th 2009] examined the controversy following a video film of his fellow solders made by Prince Harry. The video included terms such as “pakis” and “ragheads” . These expressions were subsequently defended as innocent banter. I couldn’t help remembering a long line of public remarks by his grandfather Prince Philip which also made headlines briefly, but were widely dismissed as reflections of his upbringing, rather than insensitivities to the world in which he moved.

Expressions of affection

Those who take the “innocent banter” line argue that any offending remarks are made as an expression of affection. The implication in the case of the royals is that a certain kind of upbringing makes it difficult for them to show more authentic displays of emotion.

But it’s not just the royals who engage in innocent bantering. I remember hearing a similar argument used by a prison officer some years ago. He explained to a (management training) class that he had no problem dealing with back prisoners because they liked the way he bantered with them. “I’d say ‘come on you silly black b*****d’ They know I’m saying I’m not out to get them.”

I could select various similar “good-natured” attempts at humour from comedians including Russell Brand, and (in the sporting sphere) almost any remarks by Geoffrey Boycott trying to be funny in public.

And so we turn to the sad business of Andy Gray and Richard Keys “bantering” about female officials. The career-ending episode caught on tape was that of Andy Gray and an approach to a female colleague.

Some dare call it power

The pattern of behaviour in all these examples demonstrates that the banter is far from innocent. It involves a power relationship which is difficult to express directly. It takes an academic like Cynthia Hardy to nail it for what it is. She wrote (in an article which you can Google) that “some dare call it power”.

When I dug a little deeper into this subject, I was surprised to discover that the term banter is of obscure origins. Its formal use can be traced to Shakespearean scholars who often cite the play Henry IV. [I am searching for an article from a researcher at Manchester metropolitan University which made the point] As might be expected, Shakespearean banter is subtle and revealing of hidden aspects of personality


See Jane Martinson’s piece for a critique of the issue. Advanced study: why do some people refer to the Guardian’s position on such issues “banteringly” as Guardian feminist claptrap?

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