I want to tell you a joke.
There was once a man, called Mark Meechan, whose girlfriend had a pug called Buddha. In a bid to wind up his girlfriend, in 2016 he posted a video online of the dog raising its paw in response to statements such as ‘gas the Jews’ and ‘Sieg Heil.’ Because the police have nothing better to do, he was arrested for a hate crime, put on trial at Airdrie Sherriff Court, and found guilty under the Communications Act. It was decided that his video contained ‘anti-Semitic content’, and he would obviously have known that it was ‘grossly offensive to many Jewish people.’
I now have a confession to make. That little opening paragraph was not a joke (being intelligent people, I’m sure you would’ve figured that out) and Meechan is to be sentenced on April 23rd. It really is true that a man who made a joke has been dragged through the already overstretched court system because he caused ‘offence’ and, even better, his girlfriend testified during the trial that he has never made any sort of anti-Semitic comment to her whatsoever.
None of this, however, was good enough for those who comb the internet for anything that they could be offended by, getting on their moral high horse every time they see something that they deem to be offensive, screeching ‘burn the witch’ whenever somebody makes an off-colour joke. It was not enough for the fun police that the Jewish comedian David Baddiel has jumped to the defence of Meechan, and why should it? These vultures could smell blood, and they won’t be satisfied until they’ve stripped the carcass.
This bizarre and depressing story has demonstrated two things. The first is the outright hypocrisy of those who seek to drag Meechan’s name through the mud. I’ll highlight just one example: Graham Linehan, one of the writers of Father Ted. He took to Twitter to defend the decision, and topped it all off with a rant about how any old ‘prick’ can end up getting called a comedian. Fans of Father Ted will find this strange, particularly considering the first episode of the third series, which uses the Nazis to get laughs. In other words: it’s okay when Linehan uses edgy humour, not so when somebody he doesn’t like does.
There’s something much more serious going on here, though. Let’s go back to the start, before the hypocrisy, and focus on the fact that Meechan was effectively found guilty of causing offence. To rephrase: a man has been found guilty of, erm, hurting somebody’s feelings. This not only sets a terrifying legal precedent, that the objectivity of the law should be subject to the relative feelings of unidentified individuals, but it also marks an eclipse of liberty.
For years, we have been concerned that there is an intrinsic risk facing freedom of expression. So far, we have identified it as coming from those who scream ‘that’s offensive’ when Germaine Greer opens her mouth or Rod Liddle writes something for The Spectator (strangely, these are some of the very same people who fail to see a problem with Corbyn’s defence of an anti-Semitic wall mural.) We were concerned with the law students who wanted trigger warnings for lectures on rape law, wondering how on earth they’d be successful prosecutors or defence barristers if they couldn’t stand to be in certain lectures.
Now it seems that we were looking in the wrong place. The threat to freedom of expression isn’t just in the hysterical students, and even more hysterical journalists. It’s also in the law courts, where causing offence is deemed criminal, where jokes are subject to the approval of the ultra-sensitive, and where money is being wasted punishing people who shouldn’t have even been subject to a police investigation. Our fight for freedom needs to be broadened, the lens put on much more than the university.
It would be unnatural to write an article about offensive humour without ending with a reference to the great queen of this area: the late Joan Rivers. In 2013, on her show Fashion Police, she said of Heidi Klum’s dress that ‘the last time a German looked this hot was when they were pushing Jews into the ovens.’ Describing the joke as ‘vulgar and hideous’, a vocal minority demanded that she apologise.
So how did Ms Rivers respond to her critics? Did she get on hands and knees and beg for forgiveness? Did she make a public statement apologising most profusely for any offence caused? Absolutely not. This Jewish comedian accused of being anti-Semitic pulled no punches, standing by the fact that it was a joke, and said that, because so many people believe the holocaust to be a myth, she uses humour to remind people of its reality. She had no patience for those who thought that their feelings should take precedent over her right to freedom of expression.
Does anything else need to be said?