The conviction of Count Dankula sets a dangerous precedent for freedom of speech

You can’t pick and choose when you want free speech. You can’t protest against the imprisonment of a comedian in Burma but turn a blind eye when it’s a comic on your own turf who you find unpalatable

Shaparak Khorsandi
Friday 23 March 2018 16:19
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Count Dankula makes passionate defence of freedom of speech after guilty verdict

Call me an old stick in the mud but any “joke” that conjures up an image of the Holocaust, child abuse, rape – that sort of thing – just isn’t for me. Racism too, for some reason, doesn’t float my comedy boat. I tried to get into Bernard Manning as a kid, but the fact that he relentlessly called people like me “Paki” put me off him a bit.

Comedy which sets out just to shock or to be nasty isn’t my thing. I have an older brother and grew up with teenaged boys rolling about the place, killing themselves laughing at something massively politically incorrect which left the teen, Lisa Simpson-esque me exasperated. Unless that sort of schtick is terrifically smart or makes a wider satirical point, it bores me. I’m too tired and busy these days to get offended by someone else’s stupid humour.

As a child though, seeing a room full of people laughing heartily at Manning’s racist jokes upset me. Really upset me. I’m glad his jokes existed however. Those ghastly faces roaring with laughter at his offensive (to me) “jokes” put fire in my belly, showed me what I was up against.

The reaction to the likes of Manning came at a crucial point in my life – puberty – in the form of Ben Elton, Alexei Sayle, Rik Mayall, Julian Clary and Jo Brand. BAM! Here were the comedians who spoke for 12-year-old me, tore down the attitudes of the racist, homophobic and misogynist jokers. I was intoxicated by this profession where you could fight the good fight with words that created laughter.

There were an abundance of people who hated this “alternative” comedy as much as I hated Manning but that’s the point – comedy is subjective. You can’t say something isn’t a joke just because you don’t find it funny.

This week I have found myself in the position of defending the rights of someone who comically and politically isn’t my cup of tea. Mark Meechan, aka Count Dankula, made a video of himself training his girlfriend’s pug dog to do a Nazi salute and has been convicted in a Scottish court of “inciting racial hatred”. The charge is so ludicrous I’m half expecting the RSPCA to step in to defend the dog.

After the Bam earthquake in Iran in 2003 I saw a comic at the Comedy Store point out that Bam is an odd name for a place hit by an earthquake. I wanted to cry and thought of the pictures of children in the rubble as the audience laughed. But they had come there from their vantage point and I from mine. I was offended but that was my problem – not the comedian’s or the audience’s.

Of course, it is perfectly acceptable to use freedom of speech to object but not to silence willy-nilly.

Allow me to put it in context if you haven’t seen it, which you should before you make a judgement, rather than just read about it. He starts by saying that his girlfriend thinks the dog is very cute so he was going to teach it to be the “least cute thing in the world... a Nazi”. I think we can all agree with him there. Nazis are among the least adorable people in the world, the very antithesis of cute I’d say. In the video, we see him teach the dog to do a Nazi salute at the command of (and I find these words hard even to type) “gas the Jews” with the same intonation you might use when telling a dog, “here boy!”

Horrible. I don’t find it funny. If you do then in my opinion, you’re a tool. “In my opinion” is key here. I am not the arbiter of what is funny. Neither is the law.

The terrifying thing about this conviction is that the judge sided with the prosecution who said “context and intent are irrelevant” in a joke? In a bloody joke? Context is everything in a flipping joke!

It’s happened. Like Iran, like Burma, like other countries where freedom of speech isn’t really their thing, the Scottish courts have convicted someone for telling a joke. This sets a frightening precedence for all of us. Anyone who takes offence at something which is meant in jest could eventually have a case to take to court.

You can’t pick and choose when you want free speech. You can’t protest against the imprisonment of a comedian in Burma but turn a blind eye when it’s a comic on your own turf who you find unpalatable.

Buddha the pug was taught the Nazi salute (YouTube)

Some of my fellow comedians are being slow in speaking out against his conviction. I get it, this pug guy is no Lenny Bruce and perhaps they fear making a martyr or even a hero out of someone they find repellent – a numpty who thinks it’s funny to bring the Holocaust into a “joke” and who is being backed by odious far-right characters like Tommy Robinson.

But it’s not just Count Dankula we are defending, the picture is far bigger than that. We are fighting not for this individual, but for the principle of free speech which right now is being fought for more robustly by the far right than it is by the left. This is a nonpartisan issue.

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You don’t have to agree with someone to fight for their right to say what they’re saying. Either you believe in free speech or you don’t.

If you can’t distinguish that the convictions of Jayda Fransen and Anjam Chowdhry are different to a man training his pug dog to do a Nazi salute then check your label. You may be an utterly humourless Scottish judge who has put our all our freedom to speak without risk of arrest in grave peril.

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