It began with an angry letter to a national newspaper from one of Britain's best-loved performers. Now, stars from across the spectrum of comedy have backed Rowan Atkinson in a growing chorus of disapproval over Government plans to prosecute public speakers who incite religious hatred.
Defiant comics ranging from Bernard Manning to Stephen Fry have criticised the Home Office proposals, which will be incorporated into the new anti-terrorism Bill being drafted in the wake of last month's attacks.
Outspoken northern comic Bernard Manning condemned what he said amounted to the "censorship" of humour. "There's only one thing that's taboo with me and that's jokes about the handicapped," he said. "If we can't laugh at ourselves and the barmy things we believe in, what can we laugh at?" Irish comic Frank Carson added: "Does this mean that if we have jokes that mention the word boobs women are going to get a new law to protect them?"
Ian Stone, a veteran of London's Comedy Store, where many of the biggest television comics cut their teeth, commented: "It would be like gold dust for a comic, being jailed for a month by David Blunkett."
John Cleese said that what concerned him about the proposed legislation was its emphasis on the word "hatred", a term culled from the 1986 Public Order Act, which banned incitement to racial hatred. The Fawlty Towers co-writer and star said this could potentially threaten the many satirists who invited their audience to view their targets with "contempt". He said that he would prefer a ban on incitement to "violence" based on religion. Comic actor and writer Stephen Fry also backed Mr Atkinson's argument, but added a note of caution: "When you laugh at a Brahmin, you come close to mocking an alien culture whose nuances shoot over your head."
Pakistani-born comedian Shazia Mirza, whose routines include a joke that the only difference between her and an Islamic terrorist is the size of her moustache, said that her audiences "expected" her to address the terrorist crisis. "What I do is compare and contrast Islam with Christianity and Judaism. I don't take the piss out of them."
But Omid Djalili, a British-Iranian comedian, described the Blackadder star's fears as "hot air". "I think he misunderstood the whole thing," he said. "It's not to do with comedy. It's to do with all the fundamentalists that, I think people don't appreciate, are preaching hatred."
Legal opinion is divided over whether extending the law would carry any practical threat to performers. Hugh Tomlinson, a human rights lawyer at the Matrix chambers in London, said that, though unlikely, it was possible an offence of "religious hatred" could be inadvertently committed by a comedian.
The barrister Geoffrey Robertson said: "The real danger to free speech in passing such a law is not from the courts, but from the quangos which regulate 'taste' and 'decency'." The Broadcasting Standards Commission could use the act as "an excuse to uphold complaints from the religious fringe".
A Home Office spokeswoman said the new proposals were aimed at genuine cases of incitement. "It's not about satire," she said. "No comedian has ever been indicted for incitement to racial hatred."
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