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Stop trying to lance the Boyle

Frankie Boyle’s comedy of offence is a byproduct of our censorious ‘You Can't Say That!’ culture.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

Topics Free Speech

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Frankie Boyle’s been making dog-bites-man headlines again. Yep, the comedian renowned for making so-called offensive jokes has made some so-called offensive jokes, this time about the Paralympics.

Well, knock me down with a spasticated feather. This is Boyle, remember, the comedian who wanted to call his recent Channel 4 series Deal With This, Retards (it was eventually titled Tramadol Nights); the man who during his stint on Mock the Week won censure from the BBC Trust for suggesting that Rebecca Adlington looked like someone looking at themselves in the back of a spoon; the man who has made cracks about glamour-free model Katie Price’s autistic son Harvey; the man who… you get the point.

That’s Boyle’s schtick, his thang, his USP. In fact, let’s call it his talent. Boyle, you see, is acutely conscious of the stultifying conformity around certain areas of life, of the estranged formal etiquette that determines what one can and cannot say about certain things, be it paedophilia (his topic of choice) or indeed disability. And aware of these limits, aware that they feel like a semi-official imposition, he transgresses them at will. Much to his admittedly large audience’s pleasure. Boyle, you see, is the supreme product of our ‘You Can’t Say That!’ culture. He knows what you can’t say, and, like a sarky, smartarse teenager, he fucking well says it.

Which is precisely what he was doing on his Twitter account during the Paralympics opening ceremony: he was cracking jokes that were at least in the general area of the knuckle. Here’s a few: ‘It’s got to be weird being a Paralympian under this government, knowing that a medal means you’ll lose your Disability Living Allowance’; ‘As far as the Paralympics goes I’m most looking forward to the equestrian events. I’ve never seen a horse in a wheelchair’; ‘Apparently the Saudi Arabian Paralympic team is mainly thieves’; ‘Wow, Austrian Paralympians seem a lot more able-bodied than most regular Scottish people’; and ‘Sadly our Paralympian in the high jump isn’t expected to match his personal best. But I hear it doesn’t count as it was “Taliban assisted”‘.

By Boyle standards, this was family-viewing material. What’s more, the cracks weren’t even at the expense of disabled people; they were at the expense of, in no particular order, Arabs, the Scottish, the government, the war in Afghanistan and disabled horses.

Yet it seems that the very fact that Boyle made jokes with a Paralympics pretext was enough for some journalists and activists to do what they were clearly desperate to do: take offence. So by Friday, you had the tedious sight of the usual rag-bag of self-appointed disability-rights activists combined with a scandal-hunting press, desperate to see Boyle silenced, censored and excommunicated from the land of showbiz.

Given that Boyle hasn’t actually done anything illegal, the onus to do something fell on Channel 4, the broadcaster which had previously given him airtime and is now televising the Paralympics. As Dan Scorer, the senior campaigns and policy manager at Mencap, put it: ‘It would be disappointing if [Channel 4’s coverage of the Paralympics was] undermined by providing a comedian who has repeatedly caused profound offence to disabled people opportunities to do so again.’ Such was the fuss in media circles that Channel 4 even felt the need to issue a rather defensive, if ambiguous statement: ‘Frankie Boyle was tweeting from his personal account and not on behalf of Channel 4. He is not under contract and there are no shows planned with him.’

So, because Boyle failed to adhere to the correct etiquette during the Paralympics opening ceremony, because he made jokes instead of po-facedly recognising the achievements of Paralympians, broadcasters ought not to employ him. Ever. You don’t have to be Voltaire to recognise this is something of an infringement on free speech.

Yet what is it that drives these outbreaks of activist-led censoriousness? Here we get to the nub of the matter. What really frightens those calling for Boyle or the countless other offenders of polite society to be punished is not so much the protagonists themselves, but the idea that these people have an audience. And it is this audience, this mass of people just sitting there, brains wide open, that really terrifies the likes of Mencap and other campaign groups.

As one ‘disability-rights activist’ argued last week, in a BBC radio debate with spiked editor Brendan O’Neill, it’s fine for metropolitan types to intellectualise and justify Boyle’s humour, but there are a lot of people who ‘aren’t going to understand the nuance’. That is, as she called them, ‘Bernard Manning’s audience’. Given that Bernard Manning was a northern, working-class stand-up, it doesn’t take a cultural anthropologist to grasp ‘Bernard Manning’s audience’ as elite code for normal, working-class people. This anti-masses sentiment was present in another commentator’s Manning-invoking characterisation of Boyle as a ‘marginally offensive club comedian’ (my emphasis).

The silencing demand on the part of that coterie of professional offence-takers rests on the belief that if people like Boyle aren’t silenced, then their audience, unable to grasp his comments as humour, will take them as gospel instead. Boyle says, monkey do. That is, so stupid, so uncomprehending are the type of people that might once have gathered in working men’s clubs deemed to be, that certain things must not be uttered within their earshot, lest they head out for a bit of wheelchair tipping.

Not only are people not that stupid or irrational, but – and here’s the twist – those obsessed with dictating what can and can’t be said create the conditions for the likes of Boyle to prosper. By telling people constantly that ‘You Can’t Say That!’, there is now a generation of comedians specialising in saying precisely that.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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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