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

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: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Ashdown Group: PeopleSoft Developer - London - £45k

£45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: PeopleSoft Application Support & Development ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron met with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko prior to the start of the European Council Summit in Brussels last month  

David Cameron talks big but is waving a small stick at the Russian bear

Kim Sengupta

Isis in Iraq: Even if Iraqi troops take back Saddam’s city of Tikrit they will face bombs and booby traps

Patrick Cockburn
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003