The reason for this, of course, was the row over Carol Thatcher's sacking from The One Show for using the word to describe a black tennis player off-air. Hunt pulled out the dictionary definition, which was similar to this definition I just found online – "A doll fashioned in grotesque caricature of a Black male", so any argument for it not being racist was quickly put to bed (and if you want any further evidence, the fourth Google result for "golliwog" involves the BNP trying to argue that banning golliwog dolls is political correctness gone mad).
So then the debate moved on to whether or not the word was simply used in "jest" (let us remember she was using it to describe a person, not to talk nostalgically about the evolution of the Robertson's jam brand). This reminds me of the debate over Prince Harry's "affectionate" use of the word "Paki" in the army and Prince Charles' "affectionate" use of the nickname "Sooty" for his Asian polo friend (interestingly, in a spot of breaking is-it-racist-or-is-it-not news, a shop on the Queen's Sandringham estate has just removed some golliwog dolls from sale and apologised, saying it "did not intend to offend anyone").
I don't think the Thatcher row, or the two royal examples, demonstrate that the individuals in question are racist per se. What I do think they might demonstrate is the impact privileged backgrounds can have on attitudes to race and racism. Having never been in social situations where use of such terms can be truly damaging, Charles and Harry fail to understand the true implications of "nicknames" like "Paki" and "Sooty", while Carol Thatcher is more likely to think "golliwog" is a jokey reference to an Enid Blighton or jam jar charcter than a "grotesque caricature of a Black male". "Sooty" may seem like an affectionate nickname when you're a Prince playing polo with an enormously wealthy Indian property developer, or "Paki" might seem okay when addressing a member of the Pakistani officer class at Sandhurst, but such words have far more damaging implications when they're used all-too-readily in the multicultural Lancashire town I grew up in. (And we'll save for another time my question of whether, if it is okay for Charles to call his Indian friend "Sooty", the friend is allowed to call Charles "Big Ears"?)
Anyhow, moving on from the debate (if you can call it a debate) over whether such terms are racist, an interesting slant on the story comes from Jo Glanville writing on the Index on Censorship blog. One of the unusual things about Thatcher's sacking is that it comes as a result of remarks she made off-air, in the green room backstage at The One Show. Her fellow presenters, not viewers (who never even heard the comment), were the ones who were offended and complained to BBC bosses. Glanville points out that this raises questions over the lenghths to which the BBC is now willing to go to police offensive comments made by it's presenters, arguing that "it extends the broadcaster’s expectation of its contributors to unacceptable lengths":
"Does this now mean that if someone catches Jonathan Ross making a tasteless comment in the local pub, and reports it, that the BBC will censure him? Or does this only apply when presenters are on BBC premises? If the Beeb wants to ensure that its presenters are gaffe free, it’s not only going to have to police them, but vet them for their political and personal views on sex, race and religion. That’s the implication of their decision to remove Carol Thatcher from The One Show."It's a fascinating way of looking at this row, especially in light of the fall out from the Ross/Brand controversy. There's no doubt that the word "Golliwog" has enormous racist connotations, but should people be punished on-air for things they do off-air? I think I'll throw that one out to comments.