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NICKY MARR: Food for thought from after-dinner speaker backlash

By Nicky Marr

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Eilidh Barbour.
Eilidh Barbour.

You’ll have heard the one about the journalist who walked out of an awards dinner because she didn’t like the jokes? There’s not a punchline here, because there is no joke.

A female sports reporter walked out of an event that left her feeling unwelcome in her own industry, generating a national conversation about what constitutes acceptable behaviour. It has highlighted what decent human beings already knew. In 2022, there is no place for, as another guest at the event described them, “sexist, racist and homophobic” jokes.

You’ve probably heard of Eilidh Barbour. She is a well-respected sports presenter for BBC and Sky. Earlier this month she attended the Scottish Football Writers’ Association gala dinner in Glasgow.

The event was going well until the after-dinner speaker started. Awards had been handed out to, among others, Sir Alex Ferguson, Hearts keeper Craig Gordon, and Celtic boss Ange Postecoglou. Manchester City’s Caroline Weir was winner of the inaugural women’s international player of the year.

According to reports, within five minutes of taking to the stage, speaker Bill Copeland had made a slew of sickening racist, homophobic and misogynistic comments, prompting at least two tables of guests to walk out.

Had I been there, I’d probably have left too. And it’s not that I lack a sense of humour. I’m all for freedom of speech, I’m against cancel culture, and I understand that we don’t all find the same things funny. But a Google search led me to an edited version of his speech. His comments were stomach-churning.

The SFWA were swift with their apologies and promises to do better in future. But why was he booked in the first place?

Most events, no matter the industry, will have an after-dinner speaker to round off the evening. As an event host for over two decades, I’ve introduced countless speakers over the years. Some have been brilliant (Elaine C Smith, Kate Adie, and a clutch of Dragons from the Den) and others have been very good indeed – funny, warm, insightful and engaged with their audience.

To be fair, one or two have been pretty average. And one was so ill-prepared that she was unintentionally hilarious.

Often, I can’t remember the detail of jokes a speaker has told (such is my memory) but I always remember how they made me feel. Events organisers seek to engage a speaker who brings the feel-good factor. Someone who adds to the event, and allows them to sit back, warm in the knowledge that everyone has had a good night. Edgy is good. Offensive is not.

As an event host, what Bill Copeland’s unacceptable behaviour, and Eilidh Barbour’s highlight of it have given me, is serious food for thought.

The role of the event host is to welcome the audience and set their expectations for the evening. We make sure the client is appropriately represented, that their messages are clearly communicated. With awards, it’s our job to make sure all the right awards go to all the right people, and that sponsors are given suitable amounts of gratitude. We introduce or interview speakers and guests and thank them when they have finished.

Nicky Marr: coach/writer/broadcaster. Picture: Callum Mackay.
Nicky Marr: coach/writer/broadcaster. Picture: Callum Mackay.

But what I’ve been asking myself is what would I have done, as event host, had a speaker come out with a similar diatribe to Copeland’s? Where would my responsibility lie?

Is it with my client, who paid my fee and booked this speaker, presumably in the hope they’d create that “feel-good” feeling we’re looking for? Is it with the minority of guests, like Eilidh? Or is it with the others in the room who – worryingly – lapped up the jokes, chalked it up to “locker-room banter” and didn’t see what all the fuss was about? Am I being booked for my skills, or my values, or both?

I usually have 1000 questions to ask a client when they ask me to host their event. I now have 1001.

Click here to read more from Nicky Marr.

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