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‘Some people want to see me beheaded’

Comedian and radio presenter Tom Binns tells spiked how he was sacked for the crime of ‘insulting the monarch’.

David Bowden

Topics Free Speech

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

‘I’m a comedian. All I want to do is to tell jokes, have a bit of fun and cheer people up on Christmas Day. But now I’ve lost my job and some people are saying they want me beheaded outside Buckingham Palace… I got engaged on Christmas morning – no, she’s not best pleased.’

Tom Binns is strangely affable for a traitor, especially one who lost his job as a radio presenter two days after Christmas for daring to slag off that annual dirge known as the Queen’s Christmas Message.

A comedy writer, performer and presenter of nearly 20 years standing – whose career includes an if.comedy nomination in 2007 – Binns landed himself in hot water while presenting his Christmas Day show on Birmingham radio station BRMB. He unexpectedly found himself listening to the Queen’s Speech – played on the station by mistake – so he cut Her Majesty off and glossed over the technical hitch with a joke: one which voiced the sentiment of the vast majority of the population. ‘Two words,’ he said about the Queen’s broadcast, ‘bo-ring’.

Unfortunately, in twenty-first-century Britain, where the monarchy might not be held in high esteem but where being offensive isn’t valued very much either, this was a big mistake. Having been caught up in a controversy while presenting his Xfm breakfast show in 1999 (when Xfm was fined £50,000 after Binns discussed a bestiality porn film with someone who phoned in), Binns had not set out to wreak havoc on BRMB on Christmas Day. ‘I wasn’t even trying to be edgy’, he tells me. ‘I thought I knew where the line was.’ Yet despite finishing the Christmas Day show without further incident, and doing a Boxing Day show too, Binns then found himself out of a job on 27 December. His crime? Insulting the monarch.

Binns concedes that he did go further than dismissing Madge as boring on his Christmas Day show. He also pointed out to those who defend the royal family as a tourist attraction that plenty of people still visit France – and in a time of recession, he said, the Windsors could help boost the economy by shortening the queen’s height by a head. ‘I was clearly joking’, he says. ‘Like most of the population I didn’t even listen to the speech.’ Indeed, this year the Queen’s Christmas Message got half the number of viewers who watched EastEnders and only slightly more than Emmerdale. And Emmerdale is shit. ‘I don’t even class myself as a republican – I don’t care enough about them for that’, says Binns.

Perhaps he should. It is astonishing to be reminded nearly 400 years after Charles I lost his head that the monarchy still holds some sway over the freedom of speech of the people. From defacing the queen’s image on banknotes to imagining or devising ways to depose HM and calling for ‘Off with their heads’, royal subjects (that’s me and you, that is) can still be technically collared by the law for insulting the House of Windsor.

It is rare for people to be arrested, but they are frequently reprimanded. Frankie Boyle’s now notorious jibe about Liz’s haunted pussy – and the resultant media storm raging in the wake of the Russell Brand/Jonathan Ross/Andrew Sachs BBC radio controversy – is only the most benign example of offence against the royals being used to shut down debate and curb comedians’ speech. In December, parliamentary candidate Peter White was sacked by the Labour Party for calling the queen ‘vermin’ and claiming that in asking for more public money she had ‘more front than Margate’.

Even more breathtakingly, in 2004 Plaid Cymru AM Leanne Wood – an elected official – was ordered out of the Welsh Assembly by presiding officer Lord Elis-Thomas after refusing to apologise for calling the queen ‘Elizabeth Windsor’, which is also what republicans in Northern Ireland call her, as they don’t recognise the queen as their head of state (1). At the time, Wood and her fellow assembly members were discussing the political legitimacy of, er, the Queen’s Speech.

Fortunately for Binns, his cause has been taken up by the campaign group Republic, which has called for his immediate reinstatement. Spokesman Graham Smith reminded the BRMB radio station that ‘it is vital that we can engage in a free and open debate about the monarchy, including through humour which may at times cause offence to those who support the monarchy’. Predictably, BRMB is now trying to move the goalposts. Binns’ crime, apparently, was not insulting the queen but disrespecting the fallen British soldiers whose welfare is of great concern to Her Majesty and on whom she focused in her annual broadcast.

Binns counters that BRMB has never broadcast the Queen’s Christmas Message before and was not scheduled to do so this year, either. He didn’t even listen to it, so how could he have known about Her Majesty’s inclusion of fallen soldiers? More to the point, his jokes clearly had nothing to do with the fortunes of the British military – they were about the boring queen and her head. He says he would even be willing to apologise to any military families who misinterpreted his wisecracking as an attack on soldiers. ‘But’, he says, ‘it wasn’t any good arguing about all this. The guy who sacked me [David Lloyd] used to work for the regulators [Ofcom].’ Even down the phoneline, I could hear him shrug.

This last detail really gets to the heart of the matter, and reminds you why the struggle for republicanism is as urgent now as it ever was. The continued existence of the monarchy, even though shorn of significant political power, is symptomatic of a society that refuses to grow up and have a free and meaningful debate about its political set-up and liberties. The monarchy, as it always did, offers a way for the elite to defer responsibility to a higher power. In the past defenders of the monarch claimed to be defending ‘God’s will’ – now they pose as lords of offence protecting a frail old woman (and her family and her boys in the military) from any scurrilous comment. The end result is the same, though: debate about the monarchy is shut down, and we are all expected to doff the cap.

Binns – who has worked on shows of the quality of Fist of Fun and Knowing Me, Knowing You – remains philosophical on the matter. ‘I’m getting hundreds more supportive messages than critical ones’, he says. ‘Mostly from the Commonwealth. I’m going on tour there soon.’ Might be worth him taking that trip to France, too.

Click here to join the Facebook group ‘Tom Binns should get his job back and a pay rise’.

David Bowden is a writer based in London and a co-founder of the Institute of Ideas’ Current Affairs Forum.

Previously on spiked

Tim Black argued that we should abolish the monarchy and wrote that New Labour’s justification for the Royal prerogative showed a distrust of the people. Brendan O’Neill looked at the barriers to a Republic of Britain, and explained why he was sick of Royale with sleaze stories. He also saw the abolition of the monarchy in Nepal as a great day for democracy. Neil Davenport warned of the return of the aristocrats. And Vicky Richardson explained why she heckled the Prince of Wales. Or read more at spiked issue Abolish the monarchy.

(1) AM expelled for ‘Mrs Windsor’ jibe, BBC News, 1 December 2004

(2) Our glorious leader: Prince Charles’s sarcasm-laced jibe at Tony Blair as he fought to avert invasion of Iraq, Daily Mail, 4 January 2010

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Free Speech

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