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

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'.