Rushdie's good joke made at our expense

Mark Lawson
Monday 13 June 1994 23:02

THERE has been something of a fuss about the appearance of Salman Rushdie, in the sixth year of his death sentence from Ayatollah Khomeini, on last Friday's edition of BBC 2's satirical programme Have I Got News For You.

The Sun, in a leading article headed 'It's no joke', complained: 'Have I Got News For You is a funny programme. But taxpayers won't have been laughing last . . . We pay a fortune to protect Salman Rushdie, who's supposed to be in hiding. He should hand his pounds 500 BBC fee back . . .' The Daily Mail made much the same point, under the headline 'Hardly a hermit'.

Some bizarre assumptions underlie this grumbling. The first is that Rushdie should not be seen to be enjoying himself. This is a media version of the small-town gossip that afflicts widows or widowers seen at the bingo hall or the tea dance too soon after the funeral. Just as the bereaved are expected to dramatise their psychological condition with black clothes, sad face and meals for one, so the death-threatened Rushdie is apparently required to look as if he's got something to worry about; to be a walking billboard for the issue of freedom of expression which he symbolises.

Admittedly, in choosing to appear on Have I Got News For You, Rushdie might be accused of a slight inconsistency. In a 1990 interview, he complained about becoming the subject of jokes on television shows: 'I kept thinking, what the hell am I doing here? What the hell am I doing in a TV sitcom?' Well, on Friday night, Rushdie sat there, while Hislop, Deayton and Merton did various fatwa gags, at which he smiled gamely, even essaying a couple of his own.

But Have I Got News For You is not Celebrity Squares. It is a mildly subversive, news- based show with attitude. It even has a specific history of gestures of public solidarity: it was on this show that Neil Kinnock began his rehabilitation after his 1992 election defeat. Why should this booking be thought odder than the writer's frequent appearances on The Late Show?

The sticking point, it seems, is the element of enjoyment and frivolity. The Late Show is, in the eyes of the Mail and the Sun, a proper environment for those sentenced to death. What sticks in their editorial craw is the thought of Special Branch squads with big guns underwriting Rushdie having fun. The key is the mutter from the Sun that Rushdie is 'supposed to be in hiding'.

That, though, is weaselly phrasing. Here is a man whose life is threatened by terrorists. In this respect, he resembles senior politicians and members of the Royal Family. His position is most exactly akin to that of Baroness Thatcher, in that both are likely to require heavy protection for the rest of their lives. Imagine, though, the observations: 'Prince Charles, who is supposed to be in hiding, played polo this weekend . . . Baroness Thatcher, who is supposed to be in hiding, held a book-signing at Harrods today . . .'.

Each of these activities is quite as frivolous as appearing on Have I Got News For You, and each was made possible by publicly- funded police protection. During elections, I have seen town and villages more-or-less sealed off by the police to permit a minister to carry out a silly photo-opportunity. Oddly, only Rushdie seems to be called upon to use Special Branch for solemn outings only.

In fact, I am told that the cost of him having a night out, even at a television studio, is not significantly greater than the price of him spending a night in, because the base costs of 24-hour protection have already been incurred. Many, however, object to the cost of his protection full stop. This resentment pulses between the lines of the weekend leading articles.

In the vast culture of public security - running to tens of millions a year, of which Rushdie's protection represents a tiny percentage - the novelist is the only recipient whose right to be kept safe at state expense is regularly questioned. Why should this be?

People mutter that they have found his novels somewhat tough going. Well, I have never got beyond page 13 of a Conservative election manifesto without throwing it across the room, but I accept that its authors and architects are kept safe in their beds with my tax money.

Others dislike Rushdie's personality. Well, Michael Howard is unlikely to be shortlisted for Mr Nice And Pleasant 1994, but liberals must accept that the Home Secretary should be protected against terrorism. Finally, some groan that Rushdie is only a writer. Well, the life of a writer is, for me, at least equal to that of the backbench half-wits for whom we provide two large men in their gardens until eternity because they once made a platitudinous speech against the IRA.

As it happens, Salman Rushdie does occupy a unique position among those for whom we buy big-shouldered chaperones. He pays a portion of the costs himself, in a gesture towards his critics. Personally, I don't see why he should, when forgotten politicians get their posse free. Tax is paid on the absolute basis that there will be no relation between the amount invested and the services received. Low-earners who receive heart transplants or bypass operations under the NHS are unlikely to have covered the cost of their treatment through their PAYE contributions. Conversely, a rich and fit person may die with their notional NHS account well in the black. Rushdie - like Baroness Thatcher - is simply someone who has received more than the average service from the police.

The position of the anti-Rushdie crowd is similar to that of old Second World War soldiers. Watching yobs kick tin cans down the High Street, the veterans mutter: 'Was it for this that Britons paid with their lives?' Seeing Salman Rushdie chatting to a model at a party or appearing on Have I Got News For You, they ask: 'Is it for this that Britons pay to keep him alive?'

Well, yes. For this, among other things. The point is that freedom, though a very solemn human concept, incorporates the right to do trivial things. Freedom is about the right to vote and to say and write what you like within the law, but it is also about the freedom to go to a party, to tell a silly joke. It is about being able to control your own life.

Rushdie has been denied this control, so I can understand why he might develop the urge to do little, silly things, like going on a television quiz show.

And whatever it cost to permit him to do so was, like all such expenditure so far, money extremely well spent.

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