Leave Gazza alone

Guy Birchall

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Topics Free Speech

Former England football hero Paul Gascoigne is being hauled before the courts for making a dodgy joke on stage. The ex-Spurs star allegedly made a ‘racist’ comment about a black member of security staff during his ‘An Evening With Gazza’ show in Wolverhampton last November.

A local paper, the Express and Star, reports that Gazza looked towards a darkened corner of the stage and told the black security guard that he ‘couldn’t tell if he was smiling or not’. Later, other newspapers suggested he in fact said ‘If you weren’t smiling, I wouldn’t be able to see you’ – a joke that first rose to prominence in the northern comedy scene of the 70s, and was regularly deployed by blue comedians like Bernard Manning.

First things first, it’s a crap, dubious joke. There is nothing amusing about the interplay between lighting and someone’s skin tone. It doesn’t really qualify as observational comedy and people won’t be quoting it in the same breath as Oscar Wilde or Noel Coward any time soon. So crap, yes. But criminal? And a ‘hate crime’? That is ludicrous.

I wouldn’t pretend to know Gazza, but in TV interviews and in anecdotes told by his fellow players he doesn’t appear to be a malicious, let alone racist, individual. He’s also the first to admit that he’s not the sharpest tool in the shed. At worst, it seems like Gazza was running a little dry on material, and grabbed for something he’d heard way back in his youth without thinking. He got it wrong, but I doubt it was malicious.

The stupidity of this case is reflected in the fact that the Crown Prosecution Service has changed its mind about whether or not to charge Gazza three times. Surely if it takes three attempts to work out if something is in fact a crime it’s a relatively minor incident.

Being un-PC should not be a criminal offence. Gazza has had many other demons to deal with of late, so one can hardly blame him for not keeping up with what he is and isn’t ‘allowed’ to say. There is, indeed, a compassionate case for the CPS leaving him alone. The man has struggled with alcoholism and has just had to bury his much-loved nephew – laying this nonsense charge on him at this time is mean-spirited PC point-scoring.

The compassionate case aside, there’s also a principled case for leaving Gazza alone. We live in a country where you can be criminalised for making an off-colour joke, and that should be an outrage to anyone who wants to live in a free society. We rightly mocked Germany for kowtowing to Turkish president Erdogan when he demanded the prosecution of a comedian who mocked his rumoured affection for goats. If we prosecute Gazza for this, we would have no right to mock. And we would slide further down the slippery slope of censorship.

Guy Birchall is a writer based in London.

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Topics Free Speech

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