If you can't take the satire, get out of the political kitchen

Share
Related Topics
On a German satire show last week, a rubber puppet of Gerhard Schroder stripped off and made sexual advances towards a passing waitress. The only reason I know about this is because Schroder is now threatening to sue the show, thereby broadcasting this image to a far wider audience than the satirists could ever have hoped to reach.

Once a politician adds fuel to the flames, they are bound to be embarrassed further; whether it's Jeffrey Archer's spotty back or Bill Clinton's distinctive genital feature. Michael Portillo thought that he could control and direct the story about himself. He hasn't bargained on the possibility of dozens of men with handlebar moustaches and leather peaked caps running out of the woods on Clapham Common saying: "Michael, you forgot to mention me!"

In all the years that I wrote for Spitting Image, we were never threatened with legal action by a politician because unlike Schroder, British MPs are generally too sensible to risk giving greater ammunition and publicity to their critics. Kenneth Baker is clearly not really a slug; this could have been proved by any court in the land simply by pouring salt on top of him. The politicians found it far more effective to tackle us head- on - to embarrass us. I was once asked face-to-face by John Prescott to justify our portrayal of him on Spitting Image. It's a bit hard to say to someone on live television: "Well, let's face it, John - you're not exactly Lord Snooty are you?"

Nothing illustrates the folly of a politician going to court over a joke better than last year's case involving Rupert Allason. When I was working on Have I Got News For You, we wrote a frankly rather weak joke about Allason which included the phrase "conniving little shit". He decided to sue Hat Trick productions because we called him "conniving". Presumably he did not contest the assertion that he was a little shit.

You might have thought a man with Rupert Allason's connections ought to be able to pull in some pretty impressive character witnesses. So who did he persuade to take the stand to defend his good name? His mum. Rupert's mum was on Rupert's side. And we thought a man with Allason's money would be able to afford the very best representation. So who did Mr Allason think would do the best job? Rupert Allason, of course. He was sadly mistaken.

One of the first rules of the courtroom is never ask a question that you do not already know the answer to. Allason sought to prove what sort of cad the producer was by asking if he ever did any work for charity. Colin Swash looked rather bemused but being the thoroughly decent chap he is, obligingly reeled off a rather impressive list of sponsored walks and Saturday mornings given over to shaking tins in the high street. It was then put to Allason that suing people was a bit of a hobby of his - that he issued writs hoping people would settle out of court and he would make a bit of money. Allason denied this. Cue the video of Rupert Allason's appearance on Clive Anderson Talk Back (another Hat Trick show). Rupert boasts: "Suing people is a bit of a hobby of mine ..." His case collapsed, and Allason slunk away having had it confirmed by a court of law that he was a conniving little shit, while Colin Swash signed a copy of the Have I Got News For You book for each member of the jury.

The threat to our freedom of speech (of which the right to be rude about our politicians is a vital part) does not come so much from the law courts or directly from MPs, but from a far more insidious source: the friends of the politicians who inhabit the higher echelons of the broadcasting organisations. For example, last year John Birt ruled that no reference may be made to the sexuality of Peter Mandelson. Mandelson may have been embarrassed to have everyone learn that he was gay, but he must have been mortified for us all to learn that he was a friend of John Birt. It made for a memorable edition of Have I Got News For You, but needless to say, that specific show was left out when the series was recently repeated.

John Birt does not interfere because of any great principle about the right to privacy. He interferes to protect his mates. Earlier this year, I appeared on The News Quiz and made a fairly run-of-the-mill joke about two items in that week's news. The joke was that, the way the law then stood, "if an 18-year-old boy has an affair with a 17-year-old boy, he's breaking the law. But if a middle-aged man has an affair with a girl in the sixth form, they make him Chief Inspector of Schools".

As a result of this innocuous gag, John Birt rang up Radio 4 to suggest my joke was "defamatory", which of course translates as "rude about my friend Chris Woodhead". Similarly, the spineless suits in the BBC management forced writer/director Guy Jenkin to cut lines from his fine satirical dramas Lords Of Misrule and Crossing The Floor. One reference that obviously had to go was a reference to David Mellor having sex with women other than his wife.

In all the above cases the jokes had been cleared by BBC lawyers, but the management was more concerned about offending figures in the establishment than it was about defending the rights of programme- makers. And in this way an atmosphere is created in which producers often censor themselves rather than risk crossing the management. Politicians in Britain don't need to rely on judges: they have friends who are self-appointed judges inside the BBC.

So the German Chancellor should take a leaf out of our book and forget the law courts - the modern way to neuter satire is befriend the heads of the TV network. Schroder should just take them out to a nice restaurant somewhere. Or maybe he just can't trust himself not to strip off and leap on the waitresses.

John O'Farrell is the author of `Things Can Only Get Better'.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Nationwide - OTE £65,000

£30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Ice skating in George Square, Glasgow  

How many Christmas cards have you sent this year?

Simon Kelner
 

Al-Sweady Inquiry: An exercise in greed that blights the lives of brave soldiers

Richard Kemp
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum