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I straightened my Union Jack tie and looked straight down the lens. Was I really going to do this? Today? Well, there was only one way to find out…

Did you hear the one about the Woolwich murder? Probably not, comedy’s been a little quiet on the subject for the last week. Even Twitter, where paedophilia, death, and genocide can provide punchlines mere moments after they’ve happened* seemed muted.

Usually, a tragedy is the time at which Twitter divides (roughly equally in my timeline) between those making puns about it, and those saying “Hey! A man / woman / Thatcher just died here people! Show a little respect!” Last week, half of those people suddenly seemed to discover that discretion was the something part of whatsit, and decided to stay quiet.

When a Dutch show included a cheap reference to the murder in a sketch about Eurovision, the hyperventilation of the British press (who, lest we forget, are staunch defenders of freedom of speech) became a constant, high-pitched whine capable of shattering snail shells. All of the coverage mis-characterised the sketch as ‘mocking the murder of Lee Rigby’. All of the headlines named Lee Rigby, who wasn’t referred to in the sketch at all, as the butt of the sketch. It’s pretty clear from watching it that they weren’t mocking Rigby at all, they were using his murderers as a stereotype for all of Britain, the same way they were using German stereotypes for the Germans.

But any joke which contains reference to the Woolwich murder is – in the eyes of the British press – a joke that mocks Lee Rigby.

In character as Sir Ian Bowler, a corrupt MP, on the Thursday morning I tweeted a not-hugely-amusing joke about MPs resenting being recalled to Parliament every time they went away on holiday. I was surprised by the fact that someone was hurt by it. I’d actually made someone cry with a joke. And not in a speaking-truth-to-power way, in a you’re-probably-an-inconsiderate-dick way.

So I decided to ask social media whether or not I should do an Ian Bowler video that day. There was a lot I wanted to say about the responses of politicians to the incident, and the ways in which they were spinning it to suit their own agenda. I was cross that the half-truths (which are equally half-untruths) of a whole swathe of people from Theresa May to the EDL weren’t being challenged in the media’s narrative. I was angry. And when I’m angry I tend to put on a blue suit and bellow into a camera.

Like during the riots.

But I’d been brought down to earth by that tweet. Should I say something that I knew would upset a lot of people? Should I say it that day?

The responses were interesting. The advice from most comedians was to leave it well alone. Most people who like watching the videos wanted one. Family members (mine) politely suggested that holding off might not be a bad idea, at least until they had had time to board up the windows.

One comment, however, completely took the wind out of my sails.

 I think Sir Ian should be thinking about the victim’s family, not his own career.

I’ll deal with the issue of respect in a minute, but the accusation of careerism was particularly painful. I don’t know what sort of career the commenter assumes talking into a video camera in a shed comprises (My wife could tell him. “Not much of one.”) but it was a point I couldn’t answer.

As someone whose career is his jokes, and often his jokes in response to the news, I can’t help but be something of a vulture, picking at the carrion of current affairs. It’s what I do, it’s the way I communicate. Some people write columns in newspapers, some people write plays, some people go and nod at each other on news programmes. I write jokes. They are the way I work out what I’m thinking.

When it comes to respect, of course, I don’t think it’s the satirist’s job to offer respect. Quite the reverse, when the whole country is united in feeling something, it’s the satirist’s job to point out the ways in which we are blinding ourselves to the truth. Or to what they see as the truth.

Even if it’s wrong, especially if it’s uncomfortable, there should be someone taking an unpopular position.

Someone should always challenge the prevailing media narrative, especially when a consensus is reached as quickly and completely as it was last week.

If a satirist has a duty it is not to show respect, not to defer to the social norms which are being used to silence and ensure conformity of word and thought.

There was a survey recently, which scientifically proved (did not scientifically prove) that there was such a thing as ‘too soon‘. Distance in time allows us to see the violation of social norms as ‘benign’. However, in a country where we are all more than happy to work ourselves into a group-think lather at the drop of a people’s princess, one must wonder whether our humour should be ‘benign’.

Gawker recently lamented the fact that ‘too soon’ had apparently disappeared from the world with social media. The response to the Boston bombing showed, they thought, that Twitter had killed the concept of ‘too soon’. What they might have seen in the Woolwich case is the way in which Twitter is used to police ‘too soon’.

There have, of course, been jokes. Sickipedia has 5 pages of jokes about the Woolwich murder. Most of them gleefully taking the opportunity to be openly racist.

The left has also found its outlet: the EDL. From the EDF gags to the ‘Never Submit to Aslan’ photoshops, the EDL are the one thing the country is letting itself laugh at. The anarchist blogger who pleads with his audience not to laugh at the EDL may well be right that the problem they pose is serious and imminent. However, in a culture where the central tenets of the narrative are not open for mockery, we latch onto the next closest thing. Sorry, EDL.

In their responses to the Aurora shootings both Dane Cook and Chris Rock had different experiences. Cook used the tragedy to make a tired joke about how bad the film was; Rock used it to raise issues of gun control and joke about them.

One used the moment to joke about the issues, his anger, and what he felt was important, and was rightly praised for so doing. The other used it to trot out some hack material, and caught the rage of the Internet.

There is no such thing as too soon. There is, however, such a thing as too stupid.

I’m a great believer in the fact that not all self-censorship is wrong. Taking the impact of what we say into account when we say something is not a betrayal of free speech. Taking responsibility for our words and the effect they have on others isn’t always a bad idea.

However, we shouldn’t frame all of our discussions as if they are likely to be beamed directly into the faces of grieving relatives, even though, with the Internet, they can. And we really shouldn’t let concerns about what people will think our motives are govern whether or not we speak out.

Ian Bowler will be back tomorrow. Some of the things I wanted to say still need saying. Other seem tired now, or trite, or just like I couldn’t pull them off as my rage has matured. Look forward to that. Some slightly stale material that feels like it would have been more relevant last week.

Because I didn’t do it. I switched the camera off, took off the tie, turned on the News, and felt awful. Awful that I was conspiring in silence, awful that I hadn’t had the courage of my convictions, awful that I hadn’t said something deeply offensive to right-thinking individuals. Just awful.

* For those unaware of Twitter, it’s a system used to ensure that Frankie Boyle gets pretty much blanket coverage by The Daily Mail.

English: Tweeting bird, derived from the initi...

English: Tweeting bird, derived from the initial ‘t’ of Twitter Deutsch: Twitschervogel, entwickelt aus dem Anfangs-’t’ von Twitter (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Given the great result in the #Twitterjoketrial this morning, and in a continuing effort to republish my articles which have disappeared from the Spectator Arts Blog, here’s what I had to say about the whole thing in November 2010…

I am a crazed demon. That’s right, you heard: a crazed demon. A journalist on a national newspaper says so.

And how do I manifest how crazed and demoniac I am? Do I roam the streets gobbling up children, waving my withered, sulphurous genitals, and committing small but necessary acts of petty vandalism? No. Do I reside inside the head of a young girl forcing her to utter profanities and spew forth a violently-green combination of bile and Cheestrings? No. Do I believe that hospitalised, pregnant women should be shackled in case they feel like running off? No

(Incidentally, Anne Widdecombe has proven the truth of Oscar Wilde’s quip that dancing is the vertical expression of a horizontal desire. In her case: sleeping…)

No, I believe that we should treat jokes as, you know, jokes. Unfunny, distasteful, worthless they may be, but jokes they remain.

And, so, according to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, I am a ‘crazed demon’.

This afternoon, we will learn if Paul Chambers, he of the #twitterjoketrial, is going to attempt to have his conviction overturned in the High Court, or whether he has decided to draw a line under the whole affair. Whilst part of me hopes that he decides to do everything he can to overturn his conviction, to correct in court some of the damage done both to him and to the concept of free speech in this country, I shall understand if he chooses to cut his losses.

Paul Chambers has lost two jobs, and been fined £3,000 because he used figurative language to express himself to his friends the way millions of us do every day. The problem was, he did it on Twitter.

For those not familiar with the case, there is a great summary of the events that led up to today from blogger Jack Of Kent (who is now providing pro bono legal advice to Mr Chambers), here. In essence, Mr Chambers was convicted for having, on learning that Doncaster Airport was closed because of snow, sent a tweet that read:

Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!”

What should perhaps be most worrying to us, is the assertion of the security services that they cannot distinguish between a flippant remark made to friends, and a serious threat to an airport. The people we trust to deal with the threats of terrorism cannot distinguish between a threat of terrorism, and hyperbole.

Would we trust a dentist who finds it difficult to distinguish between evidence of tooth decay and the music of the Ramones? Would we feel safe in the hands of a surgeon who, just as we go under, says, “Looking at your X-rays you’ve either got a massive tumour or a Ford Capri lodged in your thorax. I’ll fill you with car polish, just to be on the safe side”? Our air traffic controllers hopefully don’t sit, staring at their monitors with a baffled look, going “What are all these crazy moving dots? Obviously some are planes, but what are the others? Poptarts? Angels? The original line-up of Simply Red? We just have no way of knowing!”

Do they really think that terrorists give ‘a week and a bit’s’ warning of their intention to blow up an airport? Does the list of demands usually come down to ‘getting your shit together’? Assuming, of course, that their shit hadn’t been got together, the airport would have been empty, still closed by bad weather; is it usual for terrorists to threaten empty buildings?

No. They don’t do any of those things, and the police and the CPS and the security services know it.

The key point is that, knowing that they would not be able to prosecute Mr Chambers under existing bomb threat or bomb hoax legislation, the CPS discovered s. 127 of the Communications Act 2003. Mr Chambers was not on trial for having issued a credible threat, but for having sent a ‘menacing’ message over a public network.

Had Mr Chambers said the same thing on stage at a comedy gig, he would have had no case to answer. Had he written in in a newspaper or blog (as Charlie Brooker excellently points out here) he would have had no case to answer. Had he said it to his friends in the pub he would have had no case to answer. Had he said it on Mock The Week, The Now Show, or Have I Got News For You he would have had no case to answer. Paul Chambers has a criminal record because he assumed that the rules of public discourse were the same on Twitter as they were in the rest of the country. He was wrong.

Twitter is a strange service. It feels more private than it is. Even though Mr Chambers only had around 60 followers at the time, all of whom were familiar with the ways in which he tweeted, his tweet was publicly visible if you searched for it. Whilst it was intended for the eyes of his friends, it was open to the scrutiny of the world. The District Judge the first time the case was heard suggested that the result would have been different if Mr Chambers had made his comment as an @-reply rather than as a comment on his general timeline.

In 2010, that’s the difference between being a menacing criminal, and someone joking with friends: @

Still, it’s just an isolated and unfortunate example, isn’t it? Except that, ten days ago, a Conservative councillor in Birmingham was arrested under s.127 of the Communications Act 2003 for tweeting:

Can someone please stone Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to death? I shan’t tell Amnesty if you don’t. It would be a blessing, really.”

On the face of it, that’s a particularly unpleasant thing to say about a Muslim woman. However, he didn’t just tweet that. At the end of the tweet was the hashtag ‘#R5L’, indicating that this was a response to his listening to Radio Five Live. Ms Alibhai-Brown was on Radio Five Live at the time, arguing that (I understand, I have not heard the original segment) the fact that women were stoned to death in a country didn’t give us an imprimatur to invade. After all, she argued, the hands of The West are hardly morally spotless.

Mr Compton’s comment above, then, in context, becomes a spirited response from someone engaging her arguments, rather than a personal threat. The thrust is that Ms Alibhai-Brown can only be so dismissive of stoning women because she lives in a culture that doesn’t stone women. It’s common right-wing pablum – You’re only allowed your liberal lefty opinions because you live in a civilised country, civilised at least in part because there were people willing to bomb Dresden for that privilege – dressed up in a pithy way for the 140-character audience.

It’s not an incitement to stone to death a leading light of the commenterati. Not, that is, until you strip it of all context, of all meaning, and presume to be able to deduce intent from its literal meaning.

The British public prides itself on its sense of humour. The British establishment is apparently unable to spot a joke when it sees one, even when that joke comes with a helpful hashtag explaining what it is in reference to.

The Daily Mail (and one week I really will go through a whole article without mentioning them) recently ran a story suggesting that gingerbread men were being advertised as ‘gingerbread persons’ in Lancashire schools (there’s a good rundown of the story at Five Chinese Crackers) because of ‘political correctness gone mad’. Of course, what had actually happened was that someone, playing on a sense of ‘PC-gone-mad’ wrote the menus with a joke in.

You can tell it’s a joke because they were advertised as ‘gingerbread persons’ and not ‘gingerbread people’. It’s (moderately) funny. Or a threat to our great British way of life. Whatever.

I suspect that we’re losing our sense of humour because the culture of the last ten years, has been deliberately humourless. We used to be able to distinguish figurative language from literal. No one really expected Denis Healey to go around grabbing rich people and squeezing them until the pips squeaked. Where would that have left the Queen, who, as a woman, doesn’t even have pips? No, the thought of Denis Healey grasping Her Royal Highness in a half nelson, wrestling her to the floor, and compressing her ribcage in the hopes of hearing things she didn’t have make a noise they wouldn’t make never occurred to anyone. Until just now.

This is the age of ‘You are either with us or with the terrorists.’ There is no room for nuance, and those who seek distinctions between what similar things actually mean, those who question whether Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party were actually comparable, those who look for subtleties are helping the enemy. We are at war with monstrous theocrats and that is all ye need to know.

Everything must be judged in the simplest possible terms. To admit doubt, to suggest that meaning varies based on context is a heresy. The world is divided into good people and evil people, and to see shades of grey is giving the evil people a free pass.

A lot of comments on the Paul Chambers case have stated variations on the fact that ‘in the current security climate’ you shouldn’t even risk making jokes, or speaking figuratively about terrorism. Which would make a little more sense if they were saying it on July 8th 2005. They’re not. And we should ask when ‘the current climate’ is likely to end. There has been a half a decade since the last successful terrorist attack on mainland Britain. When are we allowed to tell jokes about it again?

Between 1982 and 1996, there were nine bombs in mainland Britain, set off by variants on the IRA. Why must we feel more threatened now, why should we curtail our liberties more now than we ever did then?

Do these commenters actually believe that Messrs Chambers and Compton were actually threatening anyone? On the whole, no, but they believe that the state has a duty to punish ‘silly’ behaviour, just to show it is serious about keeping us safe. We like to see examples made of people who aren’t taking the whole thing seriously because we are afraid. We like the police to step in when someone says something that upsets us.

Christianity used to be offered specific protections under the blasphemy laws. To correct that egregious state of affairs, did New Labour get rid of the blasphemy laws? No. It introduced the Religious Hatred Act 2006, which put all other religions on the same legal footing. Now all religions, even Jedi, which is recognised as an ‘emerging religion’ following a concerted campaign in the 2001 census, are offered the same protection against people saying things they don’t like. If I foment hatred against the Jedi, I am committing a crime. Even if I am a Sith, and mandated to hunt the Jedi across the galaxy and exterminate them by my religious beliefs.

We have become a nation of Ayatollahs, howling for state reprisals every time someone says something we think we don’t like. We are just as happy to see the world in black and white. We are just as happy to rip things out of context, and present them (sometimes with extra things added, like they did to the Danish cartoons) as things that are insupportable.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has decided not to press charges against Mr Compton, but still opines that those of us who think that s.127 (designed originally to protect female telephone operators from menacing phone calls in the 1930s) and its application in the last few months have been an affront to civilised society are ‘crazed demons’.

Of course, if doesn’t matter that she isn’t pressing charges, as it is up to the CPS to decide whether or not there is a case to answer. It’s not reliant on her. Mr Compton may still face trial, but Ms Alibhai-Brown has at least had the good grace to wash her hands of it.

(This sort of not-quite-liberal liberalism was again on display with Ed Balls this week. He was cheered on by various left-wing bloggers as “accepting the importance of civil liberties” while still arguing that the state should be able to hold terror suspects for 14 days without charge. If he actually accepted the importance of civil liberties he should be suggesting that it should be 0 days.)

We are in a fight with a murderous ideology that wants to curtail our way of life and strip humanity of any joy and colour and subversion and humour. In fact, we are in a fight with two: Islamism and neoconservatism.

Benjamin Franklin said:

They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

We’re doing something far worse. We’re giving up our sense of humour.

Hello, on Tuesday it’s Topical cream time again. This month we’ve got Pippa Evans, Ruth Bratt, Holly Burn, Stephanie Jory, Ben Champion, Joe Wells, Kate Smurthwaite and MORE all jumping around and squashing the news into new and exciting shapes for your viewing pleasure.

So here are ten more reasons why you should hie yourself down to the Vandella for 7:30 on Tuesday evening…

  1. Louise Mensch, Tom Watson, Boris, Ken, Egg Miliband, the omnishambles, there is just SO MUCH NEWS!
  2. We’ve only gone and bloody got Audrey Hepburn to perform for you. For one night only, she’s going to stop being dead and come to perform to you. Audrey bumming Hepburn!
  3. There’s going to be an actual celebrity guest, revealed tomorrow. To find out who, follow @tcreamshow on Twitter, and you’ll be the first to know.
  4. There will be competitions.
  5. There will be music.
  6. There will be love and romance. Let’s come to Topical Cream and dance (when invited to by the performers).
  7. It will be new, full of stuff that’s never been performed before, unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, and it’s all yours on a Tuesday night.
  8. Somehow, we’re going to top al-Qaeda Supergrass, but no one knows how, yet. Come and find out.
  9. Impress your friends by reciting the jokes the next day, and pretend you’re both well-informed and hilarious.
  10. You can win free tickets! If you RT or share information about the gig on Facebook, you’ll be entered into a draw to win FREE tickets. Amazong!

Details are here.

Book a ticket, then go spread the word…

a coconut custard pie

Image via Wikipedia

(With apologies to Michael Legge, from whom I have stolen – sort of – the title of this post)

Let’s get one thing straight from the off. You can’t be attacked with a custard pie. You can be splatted with a custard pie. You can be splurged with a custard pie. You can be spooged with a custard pie. You can be humiliated with a custard pie, but it’s not an offensive weapon. It didn’t even have any pastry.

Twitter was outraged yesterday. We heard how News International paid the legal fees of someone who had been convicted of criminal offences. We heard that Rupert Murdoch sometimes ‘wishes Prime Ministers would leave him alone’.  We heard that a senior police officer did not think that there was any conflict of interest in appointing someone to investigate one of their friends. We heard Rebekah Brooks give evidence that suggested that previous evidence she had given to parliament was not the truth. We learned that Number Ten had declined invitations to be briefed about phone hacking. Yes, all of Twitter was in a high and righteous dudgeon.

With the pie-throwing guy.

It may not have been all of Twitter, but the middle-aged comedy writer-performers whom I tend to follow were almost universally outraged by the pie-throwing guy. Really furious. Most of them frothing over the fact that this would ‘obscure’ the real news, and knock the substantive issues off the front pages, because otherwise all News International papers would have been forced to just run “We Are Evil!” as headlines tomorrow morning.

A couple of lone voices stuck up for its being funny, but they were quickly silenced with accusations of ‘defending the assault of an 80 year old man’. I didn’t find the pie stunt funny, but challenge any thinking human to read the BBC’s description of the object that was thrust at Rupert Murdoch: “what appeared to be a paper plate with shaving foam on it, in the form of a custard pie” and not find that a little funny.

I think what Johnnie Marbles did was silly. It was a distraction. It was naive and stupid to think that it wouldn’t be spun by the Murdoch press. I would have assumed that it was self-promotional if the only two videos he’s got online weren’t so poor. People trying to promote themselves usually have something to promote.

But, had he hit him, that might have been funny. People getting hit in the face with custard pies is funny. Watch the end of The Great Race  if you don’t believe me:

See? Funny. It’s an accepted funny thing, hitting someone in the face with a custard pie. Yes, it’s childish, and in this case, ill-conceived and inappropriate, but, depending on the way the foam had fallen off the face of the world’s most evil man, it could certainly have been funny. Instead of weird and awkward and looking like you were trying to duff up an octogenarian. Which is what happens when you miss.

So, I think the contempt of the great and good was utterly misplaced. It didn’t take long for some of the great writers of political comedy in the country to start referring to pie-guy as a ‘comedian’. With quotation marks. Which is pretty dismissive, because whether you think he’s funny or not, he’s certainly a comedian. Not necessarily a good comedian or one I will be hunting down tickets to go and see, but he is a comedian.

You can tell, because he’s here, doing comedy:

Not ‘comedy’. but comedy. Standing up and telling his jokes. His own jokes that people aren’t laughing at very much, but he’s standing up and telling them because he thinks they are important or funny and that’s what comedians do. And sometimes they are wrong, but that doesn’t make them not comedians, it just makes them not-good comedians. (Full disclosure: many people consider me to be a not-good comedian)

Shortly, these comedy stalwarts were retweeting untrue stories about how Johnnie Marbles’ girlfriend was dumping him on Twitter. They were so busy making jokes about the ‘childish’ Johnnie Marbles that the rest of the day seemed to pass them by.

I think that their howl of frustration was misplaced. I think it was the frustration we were all feeling at seeing the committee paw at the Murdochs like an old, toothless dog, so conditioned by years of rolling over that they could do no real damage. After a forensic start by Tom Watson, very few of the rest of the committee seemed to have a point to what they were asking, they didn’t seem to be trying to establish anything specific, but wanted to be heard fulminating against hacking on the news.

I was particularly incensed because my comment that about the chairman of the other committee was completely overlooked by Twitter. No retweets at all. I had said that he was being so respectful to the police that he was coming of as a complete penis: a Vaz Deferens. I *know*.

We had all started off having such fun with ‘hacking cough’ gags and saying how much an old man looked like a goblin, or Dobby, or Mr Burns, or Golem, or a diseased scrotum in glasses, and commenting on the fact that his wife was much younger than him, but it seemed to be doing no good. No matter how much we tweeted, they were getting away! And so, when the pie was thrown, there was a huge backlog of frustration that spilled over onto Mr Marbles.

If you want to be angry with someone, be angry with committee chairman John Whittingdale. John is one of Rebekah Brooks’ Facebook friends – he says that they aren’t friends friends, but without the greater granularity of Google+ circles I suppose we’ll never know. When, at the end of the session, Tom Watson was pressing James Murdoch on releasing those with whom settlements had been reached from the confidentiality clauses in their settlements – fairly important if we want to find out what actually happened – the line of questioning was shut down by Mr Whittingdale. He claimed that the committee had been through that issue at length. Actually, they were still waiting for a first answer from James Murdoch.

Be furious with the MP who spent the entirety of their questions trying to ascertain which door in Downing Street Rupert Murdoch used when he went to visit the Prime Minister.

Fulminate against Louise Mensch’s absurd grandstanding, in which she made populist speeches that, in trying to broaden the issue, managed to leave the witnesses with nothing substantive to answer. When you have the Murdochs in front of you, try not to spend most of your time talking about newspapers they do not own and cannot really comment on. It was obviously designed to play well on television and appear forceful, but elicited nothing from those in front of her.

Rage against the committee who let Rebekah Brooks claim that there had been a seachange in the way Fleet Street did business after the publication of What Price Privacy without reminding her that this was exactly what she said had already happened when giving evidence eight years ago.  It’s Section 4.8 of a pretty short report, not that you would have thought any of the Committee had read it. Back then she claimed that the formation of the PCC had led Fleet Street to fundamentally change the way it did business. Some might suspect that Fleet Street has not fundamentally changed the way it does business.

The truth was obscured yesterday. Our best chance of getting something serious on the Murdochs did slip away. We were let down yesterday. But not by Johnnie Marbles. By the people sitting in a horseshoe opposite him.

Promotional photograph of Johann Hari

Image via Wikipedia

Everything you are about to read is true. And when I say ‘true’ I mean ‘intellectually true’ rather than the ordinary, mundane, factual sort of ‘true’.

Until this morning I had not met Johann Hari*. When I encounter him** he seems subdued***.

This, clearly, is a chastened man. A contrite man. A man who has felt the rage of the Twitterati. “I can never quite forget,” he coughs, “That there are vicious hordes of prepubescent girls across Britain who would gladly jolt me aside with an electric cattle-prod and trample over my smoking corpse just to be standing here.”****

I feel the urge to reach out and touch him, to grasp his clammy hand to mine. The coffee shop we are sitting in***** is garish and strident in the claims it makes for its beverages. I’m sure the irony of this won’t be lost on him.

“It’s almost over. I can’t take any more of this.”****** The scourge of Kenneth Tong, and the Boswell to Busted’s Johnson has had enough.

Had there been any way of doing it, I would have offered him some comfort. Still, I restrained myself. To take his head into my lap and stroke his hair would be of no help now. Even if it were physically possible.

As I get up from my chair******* his words hang behind me in the air. “Every word I have quoted has been said by my interviewee, and accurately represents their view. I hope people continue to hear their words.”********

And that’s as true now as it ever was.

* I still have not met Johann Hari.

** ‘When’ can refer to the future as well, you know. I’m only using the present tense to heighten the immediacy and intellectual truth of the scene.

*** In my mind.

**** http://www.johannhari.com/2003/12/22/busted-an-interview

*****An archetypal coffee shop.

****** http://johannhari.com/2011/01/12/kenneth-tong-the-interview

******* The chair I am in now, writing this.

******** http://johannhari.com/2011/06/29/my-response-to-yesterdays-allegations

You know, I don't mean to be a dick...

You know, I don't mean to be a dick or anything, but this used to be a lot more magical

An occasional series of cartoons inspired by things, and posted on Twitter.

This article was first published on the Spectator Arts Blog on the 22nd November, 2010.
I am a crazed demon. That’s right, you heard: a crazed demon. A journalist on a national newspaper says so.

And how do I manifest how crazed and demoniac I am? Do I roam the streets gobbling up children, waving my withered, sulphurous genitals, and committing small but necessary acts of petty vandalism? No. Do I reside inside the head of a young girl forcing her to utter profanities and spew forth a violently-green combination of bile and Cheestrings? No. Do I believe that hospitalised, pregnant women should be shackled in case they feel like running off? No

(Incidentally, Anne Widdecombe has proven the truth of Oscar Wilde’s quip that dancing is the vertical expression of a horizontal desire. In her case: sleeping…)

No, I believe that we should treat jokes as, you know, jokes. Unfunny, distasteful, worthless they may be, but jokes they remain.

And, so, according to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, I am a ‘crazed demon’.

This afternoon, we will learn if Paul Chambers, he of the #twitterjoketrial, is going to attempt to have his conviction overturned in the High Court, or whether he has decided to draw a line under the whole affair. Whilst part of me hopes that he decides to do everything he can to overturn his conviction, to correct in court some of the damage done both to him and to the concept of free speech in this country, I shall understand if he chooses to cut his losses.

Paul Chambers has lost two jobs, and been fined £3,000 because he used figurative language to express himself to his friends the way millions of us do every day. The problem was, he did it on Twitter.

For those not familiar with the case, there is a great summary of the events that led up to today from blogger Jack Of Kent (who is now providing pro bono legal advice to Mr Chambers), here. In essence, Mr Chambers was convicted for having, on learning that Doncatser Airport was closed because of snow, sent a tweet that read: “Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!”

What should perhaps be most worrying to us, is the assertion of the security services that they cannot distinguish between a flippant remark made to friends, and a serious threat to an airport. The people we trust to deal with the threats of terrorism cannot distinguish between a threat of terrorism, and hyperbole.

Would we trust a dentist who finds it difficult to distinguish between evidence of tooth decay and the music of the Ramones? Would we feel safe in the hands of a surgeon who, just as we go under, says, “Looking at your X-rays you’ve either got a massive tumour or a Ford Capri lodged in your thorax. I’ll fill you with car polish, just to be on the safe side”? Our air traffic controllers hopefully don’t sit, staring at their monitors with a baffled look, going “What are all these crazy moving dots? Obviously some are planes, but what are the others? Poptarts? Angels? The original line-up of Simply Red? We just have no way of knowing!”

Do they really think that terrorists give ‘a week and a bit’s’ warning of their intention to blow up an airport? Does the list of demands usually come down to ‘getting your shit together’? Assuming, of course, that their shit hadn’t been got together, the airport would have been empty, still closed by bad weather; is it usual for terrorists to threaten empty buildings?

No. They don’t do any of those things, and the police and the CPS and the security services know it.

The key point is that, knowing that they would not be able to prosecute Mr Chambers under existing bomb threat or bomb hoax legislation, the CPS discovered s. 127 of the Communications Act 2003. Mr Chambers was not on trial for having issued a credible threat, but for having sent a ‘menacing’ message over a public network.

Had Mr Chambers said the same thing on stage at a comedy gig, he would have had no case to answer. Had he written in in a newspaper or blog (as Charlie Brooker excellently points out here) he would have had no case to answer. Had he said it to his friends in the pub he would have had no case to answer. Had he said it on Mock The WeekThe Now Show, or Have I Got News For You he would have had no case to answer. Paul Chambers has a criminal record because he assumed that the rules of public discourse were the same on Twitter as they were in the rest of the country. He was wrong.

Twitter is a strange service. It feels more private than it is. Even though Mr Chambers only had around 690 followers at the time, all of whom were familiar with the ways in which he tweeted, his tweet was publicly visible if you searched for it. Whilst it was intended for the eyes of his friends, it was open to the scrutiny of the world. The District Judge the first time the case was heard suggested that the result would have been different if Mr Chambers had made his comment as an @-reply rather than as a comment on his general timeline.

In 2010, that’s the difference between being a menacing criminal, and someone joking with friends: @

Still, it’s just an isolated and unfortunate example, isn’t it? Except that, ten days ago, a Conservative councillor in Birmingham was arrested under s.127 of the Communications Act 2003 for tweeting: “Can someone please stone Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to death? I shan’t tell Amnesty if you don’t. It would be a blessing, really.”

On the face of it, that’s a particularly unpleasant thing to say about a Muslim woman. However, he didn’t just tweet that. At the end of the tweet was the hashtag ‘#R5L’, indicating that this was a response to his listening to Radio Five Live. Ms Alibhai-Brown was on Radio Five Live at the time, arguing that (I understand, I have not heard the original segment) the fact that women were stoned to death in a country didn’t give us an imprimatur to invade. After all, she argued, the hands of The West are hardly morally spotless.

Mr Compton’s comment above, then, in context, becomes a spirited response from someone engaging her arguments, rather than a personal threat. The thrust is that Ms Alibhai-Brown can only be so dismissive of stoning women because she lives in a culture that doesn’t stone women. It’s common right-wing pablum – You’re only allowed your liberal lefty opinions because you live in a civilised country, civilised at least in part because there were people willing to bomb Dresden for that privilege – dressed up in a pithy way for the 140-character audience.

It’s not an incitement to stone to death a leading light of the commenterati. Not, that is, until you strip it of all context, of all meaning, and presume to be able to deduce intent from its literal meaning.

The British public prides itself on its sense of humour. The British establishment is apparently unable to spot a joke when it sees one, even when that joke comes with a helpful hashtag explaining what it is in reference to.

The Daily Mail (and one week I really will go through a whole article without mentioning them) recently ran a story suggesting that gingerbread men were being advertised as ‘gingerbread persons’ in Lancashire schools (there’s a good rundown of the story at Five Chinese Crackers) because of ‘political correctness gone mad’. Of course, what had actually happened was that someone, playing on a sense of ‘PC-gone-mad’ wrote the menus with a joke in.

You can tell it’s a joke because they were advertised as ‘gingerbread persons’ and not ‘gingerbread people’. It’s (moderately) funny. Or a threat to our great British way of life. Whatever.

I suspect that we’re losing our sense of humour because the culture of the last ten years, has been deliberately humourless. We used to be able to distinguish figurative language from literal. No one really expected Denis Healey to go around grabbing rich people and squeezing them until the pips squeaked. Where would that have left the Queen, who, as a woman, doesn’t even have pips? No, the thought of Denis Healey grasping Her Royal Highness in a half nelson, wrestling her to the floor, and compressing her ribcage in the hopes of hearing things she didn’t have make a noise they wouldn’t make never occurred to anyone. Until just now.

This is the age of ‘You are either with us or with the terrorists.’ There is no room for nuance, and those who seek distinctions between what similar things actually mean, those who question whether Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party were actually comparable, those who look for subtleties are helping the enemy. We are at war with monstrous theocrats and that is all ye need to know.

Everything must be judged in the simplest possible terms. To admit doubt, to suggest that meaning varies based on context is a heresy. The world is divided into good people and evil people, and to see shades of grey is giving the evil people a free pass.

A lot of comments on the Paul Chambers case have stated variations on the fact that ‘in the current security climate’ you shouldn’t even risk making jokes, or speaking figuratively about terrorism. Which would make a little more sense if they were saying it on July 8th 2005. They’re not. And we should ask when ‘the current climate’ is likely to end. There has been a half a decade since the last successful terrorist attack on mainland Britain. When are we allowed to tell jokes about it again?

Between 1982 and 1996, there were nine bombs in mainland Britain, set off by variants on the IRA. Why must we feel more threatened now, why should we curtail our liberties more now than we ever did then?

Do these commenters actually believe that Messrs Chambers and Compton were actually threatening anyone? On the whole, no, but they believe that the state has a duty to punish ‘silly’ behaviour, just to show it is serious about keeping us safe. We like to see examples made of people who aren’t taking the whole thing seriously because we are afraid. We like the police to step in when someone says something that upsets us.

Christianity used to be offered specific protections under the blasphemy laws. To correct that egregious state of affairs, did New Labour get rid of the blasphemy laws? No. It introduced the Religious Hatred Act 2006, which put all other religions on the same legal footing. Now all religions, even Jedi, which is recognised as an ‘emerging religion’ following a concerted campaign in the 2001 census, are offered the same protection against people saying things they don’t like. If I foment hatred against the Jedi, I am committing a crime. Even if I am a Sith, and mandated to hunt the Jedi across the galaxy and exterminate them by my religious beliefs.

We have become a nation of Ayatollahs, howling for state reprisals every time someone says something we think we don’t like. We are just as happy to see the world in black and white. We are just as happy to rip things out of context, and present them (sometimes with extra things added, like they did to the Danish cartoons) as things that are insupportable.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has decided not to press charges against Mr Compton, but still opines that those of us who think that s.127 (designed originally to protect female telephone operators from menacing phone calls in the 1930s) and its application in the last few months have been an affront to civilised society are ‘crazed demons’.

Of course, if doesn’t matter that she isn’t pressing charges, as it is up to the CPS to decide whether or not there is a case to answer. It’s not reliant on her. Mr Compton may still face trial, but Ms Alibhai-Brown has at least had the good grace to wash her hands of it.

(This sort of not-quite-liberal liberalism was again on display with Ed Balls this week. He was cheered on by various left-wing bloggers as “accepting the importance of civil liberties” while still arguing that the state should be able to hold terror suspects for 14 days without charge. If he actually accepted the importance of civil liberties he should be suggesting that it should be 0 days.)

We are in a fight with a murderous ideology that wants to curtail our way of life and strip humanity of any joy and colour and subversion and humour. In fact, we are in a fight with two: Islamism and neoconservatism.

Benjamin Franklin said: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” We’re doing something far worse. We’re giving up our sense of humour.

Update – News has just come through Paul Chambers will be challenging his conviction in the High Court. He’s making a stand for free speech for which we can all be grateful. And what’s the best way to express gratitude? Money. Lots of money. He will need another £10,000 to pay the legal fees for the appeal.

To contribute to the fighting fund, if you feel inclined, please donate here

The week before last I made my first short story sales. Although both sales were at ‘pro rates’, they were short shorts, and so aren’t going to allow me to jet off into the sunset just yet.

The first, a piece of Twitter fiction was published by @thaumatrope. If you like stories of fewer than 140 characters, I suggest you follow them immediately. If you want to dig through their timeline to find my story, they published it on February 21st.

The other, somewhat longer story, is being published by Pseudopod and will appear in their podcasts closer to Christmas. The story they’re producing is ‘Hoofprints In The Snow’ which was originally a Minigloam on In The Gloaming and was part of the Black Static Advent Calendar.

Although prose fiction isn’t really one of the things I write, it was nice to get a couple of acceptances, and to tick off one of my aims for 2010…

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