Richard Bacon is, he suggests with a merry laugh, someone who was ‘cancelled’ before the world had ever dreamt up the now ubiquitous phrase ‘cancel culture’. It was back in October 1998 and the then 22-year-old Blue Peter presenter was caught in a tabloid sting taking cocaine. Public outrage was huge, and required that he be sacked.
“No one had heard the words cancel culture back then,” reflects Bacon, now 45, his boyish smile as broad as ever, but his hair a little greyer round the edges. “But if it had all happened today, I probably would have been described as having been cancelled.”
His ignominy was complete when the BBC bosses demanded that he return his Blue Peter badge. Though he subsequently worked hard to “uncancel” himself, returning to the small screen having done suitable penance to present The Big Breakfast, Top of the Pops and numerous radio shows, and more recently relocating to Los Angeles to work more behind the camera devising and producing new game shows, Bacon will for some always be the man who shamed Blue Peter and compromised the innocence of Britain’s children.
If there can be an upside to such a life-defining experience, it is that it has made him the natural candidate to front Cancelled, a Channel 4 documentary that airs today on the rise and rise of cancel culture. Revisiting a series of recent high profile incidents, Bacon questions if this is a new phenomenon, the equivalent of book burning, or – as its defenders claim – the public finally finding an effective way to make the powerful listen to them.
“The words cancel culture can feel as if they have been around for 10 years, but in reality I’d say it is less than three,” muses Bacon, speaking from the California home he shares with his wife Rebecca and their children, aged seven and 10. “And I am interested in how we use that word, cancelled. At times it describes things that really would have happened anyway even if there was no cancel culture.”
Among high-profile examples he addresses in the documentary as he tries to find a definition for what cancel culture is and isn’t are the stand-off between Harry Potter creator JK Rowling and trans activists; the defacing of a statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square with claims that he is a racist; the no-platforming of well-known names at universities on the grounds that their views may offend woke student audiences; and local campaigns to rename or remove statues and monuments to Britain’s past on the grounds that they are tainted with the mark of slavery.
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Some of the examples Bacon mentions in our conversation, however, are much more everyday and closer to home. “A younger female friend came round to see us recently. She was talking about a friend of hers called Sam. ‘When are you seeing him again?’ I asked. ‘Why do you assume Sam is a man,’ she replied. ‘You’ve just misgendered my friend.’ It is those sorts of exchanges that just make me feel exhausted.”
So what is his definition of cancel culture? “Sometimes,” he suggests, “it is easier to say what it isn’t.” He cites the example of a notional chief executive of a large company who, in a radio interview, makes a racist remark.
“It causes such an outcry that the individual” – note he has learnt his lesson and is using gender neutral language – “is fired. It goes down as one more victory for the cancel culture, but is it really? Or would that chief executive have been fired just the same if it had happened 10 years ago?”
Then there are the occasions when wily politicians use cancel culture to present themselves as victims. “Here in the States, I have seen plenty of examples where those who have said something stupid or offensive in public then turn up on Fox News, claiming to have been cancelled. But they are talking on a national television channel. How does that count as being cancelled?”
It may be as simple as playing up to the idea, popular in some quarters, that we are all caught up in culture wars. “By constantly describing things as part of cancel culture when they aren’t,” Bacon argues, “we are making it seem bigger than it is”.
He may be coming at this issue with his own baggage, but he believes that what we now call cancel culture is old-fashioned public shaming under a new guise. “It would almost be a better phrase for it. In the old days it was the newspaper editor who would decide, ‘we are going to turn someone over’. Now with social media, it is up to any individual. All the world is a stage and everyone has access to it. They can decide to turn on an individual and shame them.”
But it is, he adds, about more than pursuing individual misdemeanours. There are occasions when there is a real and substantial issue at the heart of the clash that is generating so much heat.
He discovers this when, as part of the documentary, he travels to Cambridge. Last month, the broadcaster and art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon was banned from ever again speaking at the Cambridge Union after giving a speech there in which he read out loud in a cod German accent parts of Hitler’s writings that included anti-Semitic and racial slurs.
When voices were raised in protest, Graham-Dixon backtracked and apologised, saying that he had only been trying to expose the evil of the Nazi ideology. But the union refused to back down, and when the president of the debating society issued his own apology, the whole episode quickly became the latest cause celebre in the controversy about cancel culture.
For his part, Bacon interviews a young woman of colour who was in the audience that night and was deeply hurt to hear the N-word read aloud. “You could react and say, ‘oh, she’s being oversensitive’,” he says, “but listening to her I realised she was teaching me something important about how it feels for her. Perhaps this example of cancel culture was a chance for me, as a white, middle-aged man, to think more carefully. And is that so awful?”
That pragmatic see-both-sides approach is how he pitches the whole documentary, moving between the serious examples and the more frivolous. He very deliberately steers the whole thing away from courting controversy. “I know that John Cleese is doing a series on a similar subject later this month, so I will leave the polemics to him.”
But controversy may well be generated anyway, Bacon concedes, because he also looks at the trans rights activists who have done their best to cancel both well-known feminists (Germaine Greer, Jenni Murray and Fay Weldon among them) and academics, including most recently Kathleen Stock, who was forced out of her post at Sussex University for speaking up about the tension between gender self-definition and the biological facts of sex.
“I expect that there will be some people who will object to those sections if only because we interview two academics from Reading University who also disagree with the trans activists,” says Bacon. “It illustrates the negative places we have got to with cancel culture. Even hearing their viewpoint will be controversial for some people.”
Bacon is reluctant to go much further down this line. “If you are running an institution,” he says when I press him, “and you’ve got to work out rules around who can use which bathrooms, then you may have no choice other than to enter the debate, but I’m not in that position. What I will say is that people deciding that they do not want to enter the debate is worrying.”
On other issues, though, Bacon is more willing to take a stance – for example, over the conjuring up of often very old posts on social media to cancel people in the public eye. That was the case with cricketer Ollie Robinson this summer, when he was dropped from the England team because some 10-year-old sexist and racist texts of his surfaced.
“If someone loses their job when they are 25 because of what they tweeted when they were 15,” says Bacon, “that isn’t reasonable. It doesn’t allow for that person growing up, seeing the world in a different way, and changing. We have to hold them to account for how they are now, not for the version of themselves 10 years ago.”
His eloquence, I can’t help thinking, is heart-felt. How much longer, runs the sub-text, will I continue to be remembered for what I did as a 22-year-old on Blue Peter?
Does he feel that in this new cancel culture that he chronicles, he would still be treated the same way now for his sins? “Well, Michael Gove talked recently about taking cocaine when he was younger,” Bacon replies, “and he didn’t lose his job over it.”
Cancelled is on Channel 4 on Thursday December 2 at 10pmInternet Explorer Channel Network