So in Britain in 2022, you can get a jail sentence for making an offensive joke. Yesterday a man was handed a 10-week prison sentence – suspended – for engaging in an act of crude humour. This should give rise to some serious national self-reflection. A free, civilised country does not hand out jail time for jokes. What has happened to us?
The man in question is Paul Bussetti from Croydon. He’s the guy who shared a video of something horrible that happened at a bonfire party in November 2018. Someone put a cardboard model of Grenfell Tower on top of the fire. The model had the faces of residents painted in the windows. In the video Bussetti can be heard saying, ‘That’s what happens when you don’t pay the rent’. Another partygoer says: ‘Who’s jumping?’ They all laugh.
This was a year after the Grenfell disaster in which 72 people died. The vast majority of us will think it deeply immoral to make fun of such a calamity. We will wonder how Bussetti and his chums could get a comedic kick from this horror. But the idea that sick humour should be an offence, punishable with a jail sentence? To me, that is far more offensive than anything said and done by those bonfire oafs in 2018.
Bussetti pleaded guilty to sending a ‘grossly offensive’ message after he shared a video of the bonfire in two WhatsApp groups. Sensibly, he was found not guilty at Westminster magistrates’ court in 2019, but the High Court quashed his acquittal and he was forced to stand trial again. Yesterday he was handed his 10-week prison sentence, suspended for two years. So if he ends up in hot water in the next two years, he could find himself in a cell – for, let’s remind ourselves, making and sharing a joke.
It was a disgusting joke, yes. But then, many jokes are. Should Jimmy Carr face the slammer for his bleak joke about the genocide of the Gypsy and Roma peoples? How about Frankie Boyle who, before he went woke, made jokes about rape and disabled people? Who gets to decide that a joke about Grenfell Tower is so ‘grossly offensive’ that even broadcasting it in two private WhatsApp groups is a criminal offence, while a joke about the genocide of Gypsies being a good thing can be broadcast to numerous Brits via their Netflix apps?
My view is that no one should ever be punished for making a joke, however vile, whatever the subject matter, however many people it offends. For the simple reason that jokes do not physically harm people or property. They might make you feel uncomfortable, they might even gross you out. But a joke is not assault. It is not arson. It is not a violent act. Just as we do not ban art or literature even when they contain grotesque images or abominable storylines, so we should never punish humour. All of these things take place in the realm of the imagination, the realm of thought, and that is a realm over which the state should have no jurisdiction whatsoever.
Too often these days, we conflate speech with violence. Some activists claim that the words and ideas of gender-critical feminists ‘erase’ trans people. Students say that having disagreeable speakers on their campuses makes them feel ‘unsafe’. Clumsy questions about a person’s racial or national heritage are branded ‘microaggressions’, as if an awkward conversation starter is akin to being punched in the face.
This blending together of words and wounds erases the essential and enlightened distinction we once made between speech and action, where we believed the former should always have free rein while the latter might sometimes have to be restrained and punished by the state where it threatens to harm people or property.
We need to remind everyone that while you absolutely should expect to be protected from physical harm, there is no protection from psychic harm. Feeling offended, angered or even sickened is the price we pay for living in a free society. And what a small price it is! Occasionally feeling affronted by commentary, humour or art is a very minor inconvenience considering what we get in return: the freedom to think and speak for ourselves.
Let’s state it plainly: the sentence handed to Mr Bussetti is absurd and deeply illiberal. It is repugnant to every principle of freedom. We should put this question to Boris Johnson: Yes, we know you found that Grenfell video offensive – we all did – but do you think it is acceptable to give someone a suspended prison sentence for making a joke? Do you think it is ever right to drag people to court for their humour? Boris governs a country in which people can potentially be locked up for gags – we need to know if he’s comfortable with that.