Matthew Norman: There are heroes of comedy... and there's Frankie Boyle

It takes a bespoke brand of mental infirmity to confuse personal courage in advancing the right to cause offence with a penchant for bullying the most vulnerable
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The Independent Culture

As if to confirm Mrs Thatcher's insight that it is a funny old world, yesterday saw fit to combine two perfectly miraculous things within the one news story. The first is that, in Channel 4 chief executive David Abraham, British broadcasting boasts an even more irritating boss than the director general of the BBC. The second is that, in the long rumbling battle between one of our top-ranked national grotesques and a clever, sharp, funny and famously fearless comedian, you'd need to be doolally not to side with Katie Price over Frankie Boyle.

The tale of Mr Boyle's remarks about Jordan's horrendously disabled eight-year-old son Harvey, as broadcast with Mr Abraham's express approval on Tramadol Nights late last year, reached its conclusion on Monday with Ofcom ruling against the broadcaster, though without insisting on an on-air apology.

Ms Price was understandably livid, you will recall, at two Wildean thrusts. "Jordan and Peter Andre are still fighting each other for custody of Harvey," went one. "Eventually one of them will lose and have to keep him." And so, having allowed you a few moments to fetch the ribcage repair kit from the medicine chest, to the second. "I have a theory about the reason Jordan married a cage fighter," continued Mr Boyle of Alex Reid, from whose matrimonial bonds Ms Price – who may yet relegate Elizabeth Taylor to an also-ran in the Nuptial Houdini Stakes – has since broken free. "She needed a man strong enough to stop Harvey from fucking her."

Unlike Mr Boyle, if you'll excuse the piety, I cannot bring myself to mock the weak. Clearly this Glaswegian recovering alcoholic is a bit feeble-minded, because it takes a bespoke brand of mental infirmity to confuse personal courage in advancing the human right to cause offence with a penchant for bullying the most vulnerable. The inability to see distinctions that are obvious to others seems a classic trait of the dry drunk. George W Bush and Alastair Campbell couldn't distinguish a revolting but well-contained Middle Eastern tyrant from the reincarnation of Adolf Hitler.

If Frankie Boyle wants to speed along Bernard Manning Boulevard, and destroy a hugely promising TV career in the mistaken belief that saying appalling things raises sheer cussedness to a zenith of moral integrity, that's his affair. If he genuinely imagines that the Harvey riff was a missile laser targeted not at the boy's disabilities but at his mother's willingness to gain publicity from her children, as he claims, that is his right. If he honestly thinks that making merry of Down's syndrome children, as he has done in live gigs by taunting their speech, what a hero that makes him.

As it happens, assuming I have survived the few hours after writing this, I went last night to a charity gala for Chickenshed, the youththeatre group of which I have the honour to be a patron. Although admired for producing original and captivating musical theatre, Chickenshed remains best known for fully integrating disabled and able-bodied actors. Performing at the Hard Rock Café yesterday evening were children and young adults not only with Down's, but with disabilities every bit as serious as Harvey's, and in some case more so, none of them given to attempting incestuous rape.

Neither they nor their families nor the magnificent people who run Chickenshed are keen on sentimentality, abhorring the indolent stereotyping that condescends to disabled performers with the auto-epithet "brave". It's a joyous company which, in its mingling of the products of brutal urban deprivation and the offspring of Hollywood stars, and of those who dance beautifully with those who can barely move at all, comes closer to realising a utopian ideal of equality than anything I have seen. Mawkishness is anathema to them, and they are the last people on this earth to get their knickers in a twist about Frankie Boyle. Life is too short, literally in some cases, for that.

So it certainly isn't for me to bunch up my boxers on their behalf. Where the underwear does become a little entangled is over David Abraham. Comedians, after all, must be excused their lapses because they, like professional footballers, are often narcissistic toddlers trapped in adult bodies. Network bosses are paid lavishly to be the grown-ups.

That Mr Abraham cleared the relevant edition of Tramadol Nights in advance is peculiar enough, though we might be charitable and assume he was laughing too hard from the previous joke to hear it, or had dozed off. Harder to comprehend is his refusal to act on the spirit of this Ofcom ruling and personally apologise for his abrogation of duty now.

Instead, he insists the Harvey stuff was "absurdist satire". No doubt he too regards himself as courageous, first in allowing the jokes to be transmitted (though you wonder whether he'd be quite so brave had the child in question been Ivan Cameron); and again now in refusing to say sorry. Equally no doubt he will welcome it as absurdist satire when I describe him as an arrogant eighth wit with the sensibilities of the proprietor of an 18th-century Bavarian travelling freak show, and the judgement of a retarded water melon with disturbing Oedipal issues.

In Mr Abraham's shoes, Mark Thompson would have been on his knees, calice drawing blood and hairshirt chafing skin, grovelling out the mea maxima culpa for Mr Boyle long ago, had the comic not already been removed from the BBC after a nasty but incomparably less poisonous gag about Rebecca Adlington's looks. Indeed the BBC did apologise once, with the cravenness that has come to define it, for a Boyle joke about the Israelis beating up the Palestinians.

Now that was the sort of joke a left-wing comedian should be making, in that it was designed to offend the mighty in support of the vulnerable, and Mr Boyle was justly livid about the apology. If he cannot see the irony in treating the Israeli government and Harvey Price as equally deserving comic targets, that is surreally absurd. But the intransigent conceit of David Abraham, the Bizarro World Mark Thompson, in refusing to take responsibility for his rank stupidity is something else. It's absolutely nauseating, and he should pay for it with his job long before next summer, when Channel 4 is scheduled to gift Frankie Boyle untold hours of cracking new material as official broadcaster of the Paralympics.