LEADING ARTICLE : ANOTHER VIEW : Freedom to gag on the truth Gags don't stifle the reality

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Bernard Manning has been telling what he calls his "naughty jokes" for more than 50 years. The foul language that punctuates his act has been his trademark for decades. Even now, despite all the apparent advances in multicultural living, it makes him a handsome living. He is a popular entertainer: people flock to his World Famous Embassy Club in Manchester and his videos and cassettes are more than a profitable sideline. Last Christmas thousands of people unwrapped a Bernard Manning product and laughed at jokes about niggers, frogs, tarts and poofs.

Nor are the jokes that he was so sensationally captured telling to an audience of policemen on World in Action on Monday especially different from his routine in his own club. Nor have they ever been. Bernard Manning is in his mid-sixties, the world has changed and he hasn't.

In May 1994 I sent a gay journalist to interview Manning at his Embassy Club. Damon Rochefort was determined he wasn't going to let the old man put one over on him. Manning was warm and charming and Rochefort's impression was more of a man out of time than a disgusting fascist. "I don't consider myself racist," Manning told him, "but other people do, and nothing I say will change their minds. Last month we raised over £1,000 for a little disabled Indian lad to send him to Disney World - if I hated them, why would I do that?"

Somehow, through the warp of time, Bernard Manning directly harks back to when it was still all right to use the kind of language he does. More than this, he harks back to a time when it was common to use such language and not think it racist. The outrage that Manning has caused now is a sign of how quickly things have changed. I remember Jim Davidson, not even 15 years ago, telling Paki jokes on prime-time television without any negative reaction.

Bernard Manning is a sad old fool who thinks he's harmless; just having a laugh. He's wrong, and shouldn't be excused. Anyone arguing for his right to freedom of speech needs a strong stomach as well as a loud voice. As does anyone trying to trade off Manning's nigger-and-coon language with some black comedians' language of bitches and queers. But maybe what does get Manning off the hook is what he does to the rest of us. He's joked the truth out of those who would prefer it hidden. The police caught laughing at him have shown just how far there is to go in multicultural Britain. And there are people up and down the country who should feel a little sicker every time they think about the Bernard Manning video they got for Christmas.

Only by allowing comedians the freedom to make jokes about literally anything can we get a true picture of reality. Why Bernard Manning has really caused such a furore is because he has shown many people a past they thought was behind them. There's no need to be grateful to him but he has maybe made us a little wiser.

The author is editor of the comedy magazine `Deadpan'.