…and enjoy a frank and productive exchange of views about the nature of free speech. You’re not laughing now but pretty soon that will be the only joke that you’re allowed to get away with on Twitter without invoking the wrath of section 127 of the 2003 Communications act, which says that all e-mails will be read by a time travelling society lady from 1872 and if she blushes, you’re fined, if she swoons, you’re in the nick. Or something similar. It’s actually about gross offence, so I’d better not make any snide remarks about the clinically obese. Whoops.
OK, settle down, we’ve all had our little joke, now open your textbooks and turn to the passage on Matthew Woods arrest for making offensive jokes about poor April Jones.
Let’s make this clear at the outset: I’m neither condoning nor defending this kid. He’s an arse and hopefully will learn a lesson. I wrote a short while ago about the idiot arrested for racially abusing Fabrice Muamba, concentrating mostly on the balance of rights with responsibilities that should accompany free speech.
Clearly, my earlier article has not been read, learned and inwardly digested by every single person in the whole world because, as well as Mr Woods, a few other individuals have run afoul of laws governing offensive communication recently, many discussed thoughtfully in this article from the self-styled International Forum for Responsible Media blog. We might also choose, if we’re going for the extended question, to try to reference well-known pantomime villain and occasional footballer Ashley Cole’s “Foul mouthed Twitter rant” against the FA.
The media and the blogosphere are creating a nicely confused Venn diagram intersection of blether here, with much haranguing of leftie sensibilities, political correctness gone mad and the summoning of the shadow of Big Brother and, of course, the wheeling out of flavour of the media bogeyman Frankie Boyle.
Are there measurable differences between these cases? Mic Wright in the Guardian suggests that there’s little to choose between Woods and Boyle bar their profession. I think that’s an important distinction, though. For instance, if a bloke sticks his finger up your bum it makes a huge difference if that person is a professional doctor or a stranger in the shower at the YMCA. Or a Top of the Pops presenter, for that matter. Boyle’s job is that of court jester, to voice the things that others might not and to provoke debate. In the same way that a surgeon cuts people open knowing they can probably deal with the consequences whereas a layperson shouldn’t; professional comedians like Boyle, Jimmy Carr and Boris Johnson know that they can voice ideas that others can’t.
How about the difference between jokes about April Jones and the racist abuse of Fabrice Muamba? Well, racist language is categorically against the law, an easier line to draw than the definition of ‘gross offence’ and, whilst in the case of both offenders it’s possible that they didn’t know which laws they were flirting with, I think that the latter case is still more cut and dried. Drive at a hundred miles per hour then you have no cause to complain that you get nicked – even if you don’t know the speed limit: that just means that you shouldn’t be driving. If you’re going to open your fat mouth in public and spew bile, then it’s wise precaution to see if it’s against the law first. Yes, we have freedom of speech but perhaps it’s wise to heed the words of Mark Twain, “It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them.” And exercise a little prudence.
To me, there are two arguments here. One is about causing offence and I maintain my position. Sometimes it’s necessary to offend others in order to point out an argument. For example, I know that in my assertion that every country should be governed from an entirely secular point of view, many religious believers are pretty much compelled by their deity/holy writ to be offended. Nonetheless, I believe that my point is sound and I think that I have a right to make it. My point becomes even more potentially offensive with my insistence on referring to said deities as their worshippers’ “imaginary friends”. That too, is based on evidence-based belief on my part and I don’t see how offence to a fictional character can be taken seriously. I don’t see Othello suing anyone for suggesting that all Moors are just stranglers in waiting. Sometimes you need to stir people up a little to get a debate going and that’s where the law fails us: it deals in outcomes, not intentions. It’s possible that Matthew Wood was making a trenchant social point about our media’s prurient obsession with child abduction and/or sex cases. If so then he really shouldn’t be a comedian because he really misjudged his audience. However, it is intent, not outcome that is important. If someone intends to make a point, make us think, open up a channel of communication and they offend then they should be advised, perhaps; maybe asked to apologise and rephrase. They shouldn’t be locked away. If someone is intending to cause harm with no thought of a greater good – not breaking eggs to make omelettes but smashing eggs to traumatise mother hens – then they should be stopped and steps taken to reform them.
There’s a whole argument to consider there about why so many people feel that, removed from the immediate reaction of others, they can post such things online and why so much spite festers in the bellies of these people but that’s not why we’re here.
The other argument is ‘What is offensive?’
Sick, pointless jokes about a girl with cerebral palsy might make me wince, or feel sad but I don’t see any point in getting worked up about them. I enjoy some tasteless jokes as much as the next heaving sicko and I’ve no doubt that some of the gags I tell cause, well, gagging. There’s a line between distasteful and offensive.
I’m offended by the fact that British Gas are putting up fuel costs while tales of incredible profits are barely dry on the page. I’m currently reading Ben Goldacre’s painstakingly researched book ‘Bad Pharma’ and that’s really offending me. Not because I disagree with it but because it contains so many stories and statistics that make me angry. I’m offended that while we continue to worry about the dismantling of the NHS, some of the money that could be saving it is wasted on expensive, ineffectual and sometimes counterproductive treatments for no other reason than to make shareholders richer. I’m offended that they get away with it and I’m offended that we live in times in which any complex, nuanced argument like Goldacre’s is beyond the attention span of the media and most of the population. I’m slightly offended that I’m starting to sound like Julia Gillard.
How can we form lynch mobs about bad jokes and remain voiceless while the poor are systematically robbed by the rich? How can we allow our concept of what’s offensive be dictated by dim-witted crap rags like the Daily Mail whilst cheerfully ignoring the most abhorrent miscarriages of social justice? We’re in an odd situation where so many of us are more offended that I call David Cameron a wanker than the fact that the selfsame wanker’s robbing you blind. Indeed, if I held a fake gun to my MP’s head to make him read ‘Bad Pharma’ I’d be nicked while the CEOs of big pharma are complicit in the deaths of a truly offensively large number of people. In fact, at present, I can get arrested for threatening to do just that on his Twitter feed.
Now doesn’t that offend the fuck out of you?