Comedian Jo Brand has been under fire for a joke made on BBC Radio Four show Heresy, where she states “…why bother with a milkshake, when you can get some battery acid?“. Within the same statement, she clarified she wouldn’t do it, and that it was just a fantasy. Her joke references attacks during European Elections, where right-wing candidates had milkshakes thrown on them by activists.
Since making this comment, Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage accused Brand of inciting hate, and had suggested that police look into it.
Police began investigating Brand after an allegation of incitement to violence was made against her two days later. Ofcom had, by this time, also received at least 65 complaints regarding the episode.
Initially, the BBC defended Brand, saying the joke was “deliberately provocative” and “not intended to be taken seriously”. After a strong reaction, the remarks were later removed from the episode on catch-up services. Brand had also apologised for her “crass and an ill-judged joke”.
This morning presenter Eamonn Holmes warned that it’s only a matter of time before somebody throws battery acid in a politically motivated attack. He said that it’s harder to justify such comments when, in the last three years, an MP lost her life to political violence.
UKIP candidate and YouTube personality Carl Benjamin, aka Sargon of Akkad, released a video titled ‘Dear Jo Brand‘ in response. In the video, Benjamin criticised the double standards of Brand and the media. Brand had, prior to her appearance on Heresy, slammed Benjamin on an episode of Have I Got News For You, for his jokes directed at Labour MP Jess Phillips. Benjamin spoke in defence of freedom of speech, especially the telling of jokes, and made claims over how the media and prominent figures use platforms to spread hatred against political opponents.
Some defenders of Brand claim that being a comedian, or appearing on a comedy show, qualifies them to make offensive jokes. This stance ignores context, and assumes that only ‘professional’ comedians are permitted to make offensive jokes, whilst political commentators such as Steven Crowder and Carl Benjamin need to be censored or deplatformed.
It is more than likely that there is hypocrisy from the other side of the debate, where some of those calling out Brand defended jokes such as Carl Benjamin’s “wouldn’t even rape” joke. Others, however, appear to be primarily attacking The BBC, Brand, or left-wing activists, for the alleged hypocrisy.
Responding to the BBC’s defence of Brand, there have been claims of double standards. Good Morning Britain host Piers Morgan questioned why the BBC quickly fired Danny Baker for a tweet about the royal baby, whilst now defending Jo Brand.
Likewise, in reaction to Nigel Farage, a quote from 2017 where he says that, if Brexit does not get delivered, he’d take up arms, has resurfaced. This comment from Farage was likely a joke, but it was, like Brand’s joke, about political violence. Granted, Farage himself was victim to a milkshake attack – such a joke would relate to him on a personal level.
Freedom of Speech
This controversy poses multiple questions. How far can jokes go? How offensive should a statement be before legal consequences? Should level of offence be a standard to regulate speech?
During the show, Jo Brand’s remarks entertained the audience; there was a lot of laughter in response. Dark jokes are a popular way to entertain people; people who laugh at them know that, in reality, the base subject of the joke is bad and unfunny. The problem with such jokes is they can be deeply offensive to some people. When telling dark jokes on a widely-viewable platform, the chance of causing offense increases; people who tell them should be aware of the potential to offend, and be reasonably sensitive.
Free speech advocates mostly believe that there should be no limit on speech, especially jokes, outside of specific examples. Common exclusions include: direct incitement to violence, terrorism, slander, abuse, and harassment. It is debatable whether Brand’s remarks could constitute incitement to violence; in the context of the comedian, and the show, it was ironic. Regardless, it is important to judge by actions rather than words, and to recognise context and attempts at apology, if any.
Outspoken comedian Ricky Gervais tweeted in defence of Brand, and offensive jokes in general. Gervais, who has commented on the politics of freedom of speech and jokes, reinforced his stance against censorship; people who make horrible jokes about political opponents should not fear prosecution, only criticism.
Police investigation into offensive social media content, including ironic content, has led to further criticism from free speech activists. Some have concern that increased legal regulation of speech risks leading to a more Orwellian society.