Leading Article: The misjudged policemen's ball

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Have you heard the one about the fat comedian, the dozy coppers and the nasty night out? No? Here is a warning - it isn't funny. As revealed in last night's World in Action the comic was Bernard Manning, his audience were policemen (no women) from Greater Manchester and the nastiness of the occasion lay in the crassness of Manning's routine and the warm reception it received.

Manning's repartee is notorious, but that night he outdid himself. Jokes about beating up "niggers" and "coons" were followed by references to the Asian population of Bradford that might have graced the pages of a British National Party freesheet. The one black officer present was singled out. "Lovely to see you, son," said Manning. "You're black, I'm white. Do you think it makes any difference what colour you are? You bet your f-ing b-s it does." And they laughed.

Manning himself is an unappealing character. His humour is cold and antagonistic - aimed exclusively at easy targets. There is an absence of empathy, warmth or understanding. No black person or Asian could feel comfortable in the presence of such palpable hostility.

None of which would have been news to the organiser of the event (which, ironically, was a charity social that raised nearly £30,000 for injured policemen in Northern Ireland). This organiser must have known what Manning was likely to say. And, judging from the reaction that night, it was what at least much of the audience wanted to hear.

This approval is what makes this incident so depressing. For years now the police service, realising that a problem of mutual antipathy and suspicion had grown up between the force and the black and Asian communities, has been trying to improve its record on race relations. Recently there have been some successes, especially in recruitment. Senior officers have by their actions demonstrated sincerity in wanting to root out racism from the force.

But what faith are members of minorities supposed to have in the police if a bobby's idea of a good night out is listening to the jokes page of Bulldog? Confidence is notoriously hard to win and agonisingly easy to lose.

That is why those responsible for the Manning invitation should face retribution. Where they get their laughs when they're off duty is their own business. But when they organise an event directly identified with the institution of the police force, higher standards of sensitivity and conduct are required. That is the real punch-line. The question is - do they get it?