Minister for Laughter  July 2019

This week former ‘Have I Got News For You’ comedic performer Boris Johnson became Prime Minister. Yes you read that sentence correctly, ok I did kind of skip the part where he was Mayor of London and Foreign Secretary, but when a man famously known for his gaffs, grabs the seat of UK power, you got to wonder how this is all going to effect the world of entertainment?

Comedy has been spoilt with the Twitter rants of Trump, but with Boris moving into Number 10, are they set to become some sort of political Laurel and Hardy or will Boris learn to behave? It’s not just the laughter factor, like his American counterpart, some of Johnson’s jolly japes have been condemned as outright hate speech.

Boris Hate Speech?

Muslim women wearing burkas "look like letter boxes"

This poses a ton of questions for the media and entertainment world. Where does Freedom of Speech end and Hate Speech begin? Is it ok to offend if it lands a laugh and is it more offensive coming from a politician than a comedian?  Well, technically, we don’t have Freedom of Speech here in the UK, we have what is known as ‘Freedom of Expression’.  Under Article 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998, ‘everyone has the right to freedom of expression” in the UK. But the law states that this freedom “may be subject to formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society’.

Whereas ‘Hate Speech’ includes in its definition ‘insulting words or behaviour that causes, or is likely to cause, another person harassment, alarm or distress’

Satire walks the tight-rope of offence

Obviously, we expect more of our politicians, but’s it’s easy to see how comedians and broadcasters could easily find themselves in hot water. This month also saw comedian Jo Brand hauled in front of police after Radio 4 broadcast her joke about protesters replacing milkshakes thrown at Nigel Farage with “acid” on its satirical show ‘Heresy’.

It’s not the first time BBC Radio got in trouble for broadcasting offensive content. In 2008, comedy’s other Brand and his flying monkey co-host Johnathon Ross, left a series of voice messages for Andrew Sachs boasting of Russell’s sexual conquests with the actor’s granddaughter, raising a whopping 18,000 complaints from offended listeners.

“Just because you’re offended, doesn’t mean you’re right”

But, as Ricky Gervais once said, “just because you’re offended doesn’t mean you’re right” and Boris plans to listen to Gervais’s wise words. Last year Johnson wrote in The Telegraph that the UK “needs a campaign for the right to make jokes and the right, within the law, to be satirical to the point of causing mild offence” and now he’s in prime position to make that happen.

The world stage awaits Boris Johnson’s first comedic triumph as our leader; may I suggest a mud wrestle with Jean-Claude Juncker to decide the fate of the Brexit trade agreement? Whereas the broadcasting world may well give a sigh of relief if Boris sticks to his word when it comes to satire. 

Copyright © Sarah Armstrong as ‘Dita Kelly’ 2019