It might seem like a laugh but the Daily Mail’s latest attack on comedy is dangerous

The day we start allowing populist, socially conservative wings of our national press to dictate what can and can't be said is a very dark one indeed

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The Independent Online

It’s tempting to dismiss the Daily Mail campaign against the jokes made during Channel 4’s Big Fat Quiz as a bit of manufactured faux outrage during a slow news period to generate some hits. It is of course exactly that. But it’s also deeply dangerous.

The tabloids – and particularly the Mail – have a strong track record of trying to be the national arbiter of what is funny and what isn’t. Their campaigns against entertainers like Jonathan Ross and Frankie Boyle effectively cost those two comedians their jobs.

Now you might not find Ross or Boyle – or the Mail’s latest bête noire Jack Whitehall – funny. You might think they’re deeply offensive. But the day we start to allow the populist, socially conservative wings of our national press decide what a comedian cannot say is a very dark day indeed.

During the run up to the publication of the Leveson Inquiry, the Mail was one of the papers shouting loudest (in my opinion rightly) about the chilling effect statutory regulation of the press might have on free speech. Yet comedians, it seems, are fair game for censors.

The thing about comedy, like art or fashion, is it’s entirely aesthetic. What one person might find hilarious, such as Jack Whitehall’s joke about the Queen’s sex life, another might find offensive. Good comedy is often controversial and makes the audience think or gasp as much as it makes them laugh.

But the most important thing to recognise is not all jokes are going to be funny to everyone. Every now and then someone will be offended. That’s simply a by-product of comedy. What works on a Jerry Sadowitz or Louis CK audience might cause a heart attack for someone expecting to hear Michael Macintyre describe getting onto a tube train.

Channel 4’s Big Fat Quiz happens every year and has always featured comedians that are, how shall I put it, not safe. That’s what its target audience has come to expect, it’s what they want and it’s popular. That’s why the show is broadcast after the watershed. Once 9pm comes along, it’s up to parents to check what their kids are watching – not the state and certainly not a newspaper. Meanwhile those adults who don’t like what they can see can vote with their remote controls by changing the channel. TV in that respect is marvellously democratic.

And whose army?

With a bit of luck Ofcom and broadcasters will simply ignore the complaints that have supposedly flooded in since New Year’s Eve. Flooded would of course be a massive overstatement. So far they have received around 160 which is bugger all in the grand scheme of things when you consider the 100,000s that watched the show (and the 100,000s more that entirely unaware of the show but will no doubt watch the repeats now that the Mail has kicked up a fuss).

Moreover, in the 24 hour period after the show was broadcast, Ofcom was saying the number of complaints it received were “in the single digits” which suggests that the vast majority of anger only came in once the Mail had told people to get outraged.

In contrast, The Independent has run its own online poll asking readers whether the Big Fat Quiz went “too far”. So far almost 7,000 people have voted so far, with 95 per cent saying, ‘no’.

But if precedence is anything to go by there’s a chance we may see some scalps and that would be disastrous for comedy. The Mail’s campaign against Jack Whitehall has shifted today towards “building pressure” on the National TV Awards to axe him as a presenter and there’s a risk they might.

Jonathan Ross effectively lost his job over Sachsgate – which let us not forget meant Britain was subjected to Graham Norton for more than two years of prime time programming on the BBC (Ross has been rehabilitated on ITV but you get the impression he watches what he says more carefully nowadays). Russell Brand pretty much moved to the States because of the furore (where the Yanks find him hilarious).

Too dark

Frankie Boyle told me shortly before Christmas that he has now given up on comedy altogether because of the regular tabloid campaigns against his particular – and yes often offensive – humour. I was interviewing Frankie about his decision to donate the libel money he won against the Mirror to the campaign for Britain’s last Guantanamo inmate Shaker Aamer. During the interview he hit out at how tabloid campaigns against comedians had dulled British comedy because TV producers no longer wanted to risk controversy.

“It’s not that comedy is censored, it’s just they don’t make the kind of things they might have to censor anymore,” he said. “I went from Mock the Week where we would have been talking about the Iraq invasion at one point, to a point where you couldn’t possibly mention anything like that. But these things come in cycles you know, they open up and they close down. “

I hope he’s right. But I don’t relish the fact we’re currently going through an era where outré comedy on mainstream platforms regularly faces calls to be shut down.

Yet there is a glimmer of hope. And it comes in the form of the Daily Mail reader. The last two pieces the paper has published on Jack Whitehall have generated thousands of comments underneath the text. Not that you’d know it from the Mail’s own report, but the comments that have received by far the most green arrows are the ones like this: “Whether or not it was a tasteful program or not is irrelevant. If it offends you, don't watch it. If you don't want your children to watch it, don't let them. I am not a fan of infantile, simplistic, very crude humour, however I am getting tired of this highly sensitive society in which people are constantly “offended” and consequently involve everyone else in their dissatisfaction.”

Couldn’t have put it better myself.