Get the cops out of comedy

It is outrageous that the police ‘assessed’ Jo Brand’s battery-acid joke.

Andrew Doyle

In 1996, comedian Jo Brand publicly called for the decapitation of Jane Seymour, star of Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman, on the grounds that ‘she’s a shit actress’. Except that she didn’t really. What actually happened is that she told a joke in her Channel 4 show A Big Slice of Jo Brand about King Henry VIII’s penchant for executing his wives, playing on the fact that one of them was also called Jane Seymour, and fantasising about the idea that he could be resurrected in order to chop off her namesake’s head.

Now Brand has been ‘assessed’ by the police for joking about throwing battery acid at politicians. Given the prevailing tendency to take comedy at face value, perhaps her dig at Jane Seymour will be cited as further evidence of her bloodthirsty inclinations. The police announced on Friday that no further action was required, which begs the question as to why they were even indulging in this charade in the first place.

There has been a certain degree of Schadenfreude among those who are sick of the state’s encroachments into the realm of humour, particularly from the right-wing commentariat. If Markus Meechan (aka Count Dankula) can be prosecuted for teaching his pug to mimic a Nazi, and a group of men can be arrested for burning a cardboard effigy of Grenfell Tower, why shouldn’t Brand face trial for making light of acid attacks?

It is entirely understandable that many would be angry at the hypocrisy of those comedians who remained silent during the Dankula case but have now rallied to Brand’s defence. It’s not as though professional comics have some exclusive divine right to make transgressive jokes. But it is important to emphasise that Brand has done nothing wrong, and selective support for the increasingly authoritarian practices of our law-enforcement agencies is only going to exacerbate the problem.

As expected, some have responded with the usual mantra of ‘freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences’, but speech cannot possibly be said to be free at all if the consequences involve a police investigation. Appeals to the concept of ‘inciting violence’ are similarly unpersuasive. Does anybody seriously believe that the psychopaths in our midst are waiting for Jo Brand’s permission before committing acts of violence? Or that Count Dankula’s ‘Nazi pug’ video could ever conceivably have had a radicalising effect?

Nor am I much interested in those who defend their criticism of Brand on the basis that jokes about acid attacks can never be funny. The members of the audience who can clearly be heard laughing on the recording of her performance evidently disagree. If you struggle with the concept of the subjectivity of humour, then perhaps comedy criticism isn’t for you.

While it is unfortunate that we didn’t see this kind of outcry during the Meechan trial, we need to put that aside and focus on the matter at hand. We are living through a bizarre period in which the concept of offence is seen as a determining factor in criminal prosecutions. Meechan was only convicted because the judge deemed his video to be ‘grossly offensive’ in violation of the 2003 Electronic Communications Act. This dangerous legislation applies throughout the United Kingdom and should be repealed as soon as possible.

That the police are finding themselves investigating comedy is the inevitable result of our culture of offence, one that has escalated due to widespread complacency. It is doubtless connected to the documented increase in narcissism, possibly driven by social media. This desire to reshape the world around one’s own personal sensibilities is what lies behind every case of this kind. It’s why Danny Baker was fired from the BBC, why the Canadian comedian Mike Ward was fined $42,000 for a comedy routine, why the Barry Award at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival was renamed following Barry Humphries’ comments about transgenderism. To express moral disapproval is everyone’s right, but now it can be a catalyst to punitive action.

In this time of political tribalism where loyalties overwhelm critical thought, it will take instances such as the Jo Brand controversy to expose the follies of the criminalisation of speech. Many of those who have supported restrictions on free speech are now waking up to the consequences, but only because one of ‘their own’ is affected. If that’s what it takes to encourage us to make a concerted effort across the political spectrum to repeal hate-speech legislation, and to recognise that the state has no business to interfere in the jokes we choose to tell, then perhaps something positive will come out of this farce.

Andrew Doyle is a stand-up comedian and spiked columnist. He is also the co-founder of Comedy Unleashed, London’s free-thinking comedy club. Follow Andrew on Twitter: @andrewdoyle_com

Watch The Curious Case of the Nazi Pug below:

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Jeremy Howell

7th August 2019 at 3:24 pm

When it comes to such cases as Count Dankula being prosecuted over the pug he trained to make Nazi salutes, or Jo Brand being investigated over her “battery acid” joke, it seems lawmakers, the courts, the police and institutions like the BBC have a fear that gags like this will provoke weak-minded and impressionable people to racist extremism or to violence. As Andrew Doyle points out, it is paternalistic and infantilizing. The authorities clearly feel that we are “one tweet away” from these things, and need to be protected.
This seems to me rather like the attitudes of the courts in the days of the old obscenity laws (pre the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial of the early 60’s). The courts held that while most grown-ups could read edgy books (Lady Chatterley, Lolita, Last Exit To Brooklyn and the like) and not be de-moralised by them. However, a legal ruling dating from the 1860s declared there were “reserved classes” such as young and feeble-minded people who might succumb.
Police were therefore keen to bring prosecutions to stop society being engulfed by a “tide of filth” for the sake of young and impressionable minds, and judges pointed out to juries their duty to convict to protect the vulnerable.
Publishers fell into line and would publish nothing which would “offend a 14 year-old girl”.
This notion of protecting “reserved classes” was overthrown by the Lady Chatterley case. Jury members said afterwards that they didn’t like Lawrence’s book but equally didn’t want to be told what they could or could not read by the “pin-striped trouser brigade”.
I am wondering when we may see a case where a jury refuses to convict the next Count Dankula on the same basis.
Training a pug to salute is a poor joke. However, are we such a bunch or impressionable, feeble-minded cretins that we need the state to intervene to protect of us from it is the sight of it?

Andrew Leonard

2nd July 2019 at 11:03 am

Anthony Baker

22nd June 2019 at 10:26 am

Nothing wrong with the Jo Brand article except that the author doesn’t know the correct use of ‘begs the question’. (Sometimes I think only Germaine Greer and I, and probably Simon Heffer, do.)

Anthony Baker

22nd June 2019 at 10:24 am

Nothing wrong with the Jo Brand article except that the author doesn’t know the correct use of ‘begs the question’. (Sometimes I think only Germaine Greer and I do.)

Anthony Baker

22nd June 2019 at 10:29 am

Oh, dear – can’t I delete my earlier version? – AB

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