The attack on the BBC's Eric Gill statue marks a new juncture in the culture wars
Yesterday afternoon, a would-be vandal climbed up a ladder and began hammering away at the bottom of the statue that graces the front of the BBC’s Broadcasting House in London — a depiction of an adult and a naked figure that looks a child, sculpted in 1932 by the British artist Eric Gill. The crowd below filmed him on their phones and laughed at a sight that was, to be fair, really quite comical. After four and a half hours, the man was brought down and arrested on suspicion of criminal damage.
Outside BBC right now a man is trying to smash up Eric Gill statue while another man live streams talking about paedophiles. Gill’s horrific crimes are well known. But is this the way? pic.twitter.com/IzFUBIJfwT
— Katie Razzall (@katierazz) January 12, 2022
I did wonder, after the Colston verdict last week, if this particular statue might be next in line for a dose of iconoclasm. Until now, statue toppling has been a project favoured by the Left, with a particular focus on statues of slave owners.
The Gill statue at Broadcasting House has been a focus of controversy for some time, ever since the examination of Eric Gill’s private papers uncovered accounts of sexual crimes committed by Gill against his daughters, sisters, and even the family dog. Pair these revelations with those concerning the BBC and Jimmy Savile, who is now believed to have sexually assaulted as many as 1,000 girls and boys on the corporation’s premises over the course of four decades.
But in the current political landscape, anxiety about paedophilia is associated far more with the Right than with the Left, partly due to the Left’s disdain for the tabloid press, which has always cared greatly about “paedos”. And the Right wing group that is most preoccupied with paedophilia is QAnon, who have been protesting outside Broadcasting House as far back as 2020, demanding the statue’s removal.
So perhaps the BBC statue attack marks new ground in that it is offensive primarily to the Right, who have not, in recent times, shown much interest in playing the statue game.
The defence tactic used by the Colston defendants could easily be attempted by the BBC vandal. They argued that the public display of a statue depicting the slave owner Edward Colson was criminal, given that it was likely to cause distress to people viewing it. Thus, by tearing it down, they were using reasonable force to prevent the commission of a crime.
A little far-fetched, as defences go. But apparently the jury were persuaded. Legal commentator the Secret Barrister was confident that the acquittal of the Colston four would not, technically, constitute a legal precedent, since this is not within the power of juries. And the consensus among most commentators was that, although the verdict might seem odd, it had wisdom behind it.
Is the “distress” felt by these protestors at the sight of the BBC statue enough to warrant its abrupt and unsanctioned removal? We will soon discover if the defence strategy that worked for the Colston four is as effective when it concerns a statue hated by the Right, rather than by the Left.