Brendan O’Neill

Gazza’s 21st-century show trial should worry us all

Gazza's 21st-century show trial should worry us all
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Is it a crime now to tell rubbish jokes? The bizarre and frankly cruel treatment of Paul Gascoigne suggests it might be. Yesterday, at Dudley Magistrates Court, Gazza was found guilty of using ‘threatening or abusive words’ and fined £2,000. His crime was to say the following about a black security guard who had been assigned to look after him during his show An Evening With Gazza at Wolverhampton Civic Hall last year: ‘Can you smile please, because I can’t see you?’ Some people might find that funny; I, personally, don’t. But a court case? A criminal record? A fine? For cracking a joke? The precedent set by this case is terrifying.

Next time one of our politicians does a lip-wobbly speech about foreign regimes that arrest comics and satirists, remember this criminalisation of Gazza. Remember that right here, in supposedly liberal Britain, where barely a day passes without some politician chirping about how free speech is our core value, you can be taken to court and fined for making a joke. Gazza’s £2,000 punishment — £1,000 of which is a punitive fine, the other £1,000 compensation to the target of joke, Errol Rowe — means he’s being forced to pay £222 for every word of what he thought was his amusing aside. Next time you tell a controversial joke, keep it short: the punishment can be stiff.

The horrendous nature of the Gazza case — once again, people: a man taken to court for telling a joke — is summed up in the judge’s arrogant comments. In his slamming of Gazza, District Judge Graham Wilkinson decreed ‘it is not acceptable to laugh words like this off as some form of joke’. Wait, what? Judges, agents of the state, now get to decide what people may laugh at? To determine what sort of jokes it’s acceptable to tell? How long before all comedians, or non-comedians like Gazza who are considering making a wisecrack or two in public, will have to submit their gags to a committee of moral guardians in advance of uttering them on stage? A country in which a judge can rule that certain forms of humour are ‘not acceptable’, and punish you for dabbling in them, is not a free country.

Wilkinson went on to tell Gazza: ‘We live in the 21st century — grow up with it or keep your mouth closed.’ This captures the tyrannical essence of the state’s clampdown on hate speech. What is being said here is that if you have not fully imbibed today’s mainstream moral outlook — in this case that it’s bad to tell racial jokes, in other cases that you shouldn’t mock Islam, make offensive gags on Twitter, or even engage in ‘uninvited verbal contact’ with a woman — then you should not speak publicly. You should STFU, keep your warped ideas and humour and morality to yourself, thanks. And if you don’t, then expect a knock on the door from the cops, a fine, and maybe jail. This is profoundly illiberal. Under the cover of tackling ‘hate speech’, everything from people’s humour to their moral attitudes to our everyday conversation is being intensively policed and sometimes punished. The seemingly PC war on racist, sexist and Islamophobic language has opened the door to state monitoring of thought, speech and behaviour.

Perhaps the worst thing said by Wilkinson as he passed judgement on Gazza was this: ‘A message needs to be sent that in the 21st century… such words will not be tolerated.’ So was this a show trial? A man was dragged to court to ‘send a message’ to society at large? A man, by the way, who has very serious issues with alcoholism. Making a public spectacle of a damaged guy for moral, legal ends — what a cruel country we have become. Who thought this case was in the public interest? Shame on all of them.

Written byBrendan O’Neill

Brendan O’Neill is the editor of Spiked and a columnist for The Australian and The Big Issue.

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