The comedian, Jo Brand, has got herself into hot water for telling a joke that has been condemned as inflammatory, even as an incitement to violence. Calls have been made for the BBC to sack her. The police are investigating. Her critics say, in effect, that a joke is never just a joke; others say the whole incident is being got up out of all proportion. Are we losing our sense of proportion or is it right to rein in comedians who go too far?

Jo Brand was speaking on Radio 4’s comedy programme Heresy. She was commenting on the brief craze for flinging milkshakes at politicians, most commonly at the Brexit Party leader, Nigel Farage, during the European parliament elections. She said: ‘Certain unpleasant characters are being thrown to the fore and they’re very, very easy to hate and I’m kind of thinking, “Why bother with a milkshake when you could get some battery acid?”’ She then went on to add: ‘I’m not going to do it, it’s purely a fantasy but I think milkshakes are pathetic, honestly I do, sorry.’

Mr Farage called her remarks an ‘incitement to violence’. Others reported her to the Metropolitan Police on the same grounds. The Met said: ‘The allegation is currently being assessed. There have been no arrests and inquiries are ongoing.’

The Prime Minister got involved. Her spokesman said: ‘The Prime Minister has been repeatedly clear that politicians should be able to go about their work and campaign without harassment, intimidation or abuse’.

It’s worth noting that this has happened at a time when various social media platforms have allowed a vile climate of abuse and even physical threats against politicians to develop. Three years ago this month the Labour MP, Jo Cox, was murdered by a neo-Nazi fanatic in her constituency. Her widower, Brendan Cox, had said about the milkshake attacks on Nigel Farage last month: ‘I dislike Nigel Farage’s politics profoundly. But I don’t think throwing things at politicians you disagree with is a good idea. It normalises violence and intimidation.’ To many, even joking about substituting battery acid for milkshakes only risks exacerbating things even further.

The Number Ten spokesman said it was for the BBC to explain why it considered the joke to have been ‘appropriate content’ for broadcast and others called on the corporation for Jo Brand to be sacked. In fact she is not a BBC employee so cannot be, but the corporation has cut the joke from its catch-up service. But it also made a statement implying it thought the incident was being blown up out of proportion. It said: ‘Heresy is a long-running comedy programme where, as the title implies, panellists often say things which are deliberately provocative and go against social norms but are not intended to be taken seriously.’ The programme’s host, Victoria Coren Mitchell, went further, tweeting: ‘Nigel! I’m genuinely disappointed; we don’t agree on everything, but I would totally have had you down as a free speech man. Especially when it comes to jokes.’

Jo Brand herself responded by telling the Henley-on-Thames literary festival that she was ‘happy’ with her joke. She said: ‘I’m not an MP. I don’t have any responsibility to anybody except myself and I am happy, in inverted commas, with the way I phrased that’. She also offered an apology to anyone directly affected by it ‘if’ her joke had been a mistake.

The issue here is the age-old one of free speech. If we defend free speech, are we prepared to accept that there may sometimes be legitimate reasons for imposing limits? And if we are should we be free to have an open debate about where those limits should be? Should society be allowed to exercise its own  sense of proportion in defining them or do we need some form of legal censorship to protect us from being offended? If we take the latter view it means accepting that the police might sometimes be called in to investigate. Those who think we can handle this ourselves, are appalled by the notion. They say there’s a big difference between, say, incitement to violence and causing offence. 

It’s an issue that stretches way beyond jokes on BBC comedy programmes. This week the Advertising Standards Authority has introduced a ban on ‘harmful gender stereotypes’ on ads. These are the sort of ads that might show a woman failing to park a car, a man sitting with his feet up while a woman does the cleaning, a little girl dreaming of becoming a ballet dancer while a little boy dreams of being an engineer, and so on.

The ASA’s chief executive, Guy Parker, argues that such ads could ‘restrict the choices, aspirations and opportunities of children, young people and adults and these stereotypes can be reinforced by some advertising, which plays a part in unequal gender outcomes’.

Some people will welcome these new restrictions on the grounds that societies do have a tendency to propagate stereotypes and advertisements play a big role in doing so. It’s right, therefore, that we should have an authority with the power to fight back. Others argue that we simply don’t need to be protected from ourselves in this way because we have an innate sense of proportion which means we’re not likely to be brainwashed in the way that such alarm about stereotypes implies. We can make up our own minds and don’t need to be treated like children.

The argument is perhaps at its most acute on university campuses where the practice of ‘no platforming’ has become commonplace. It involves  denying the right to speak to those who express views contrary to prevailing opinion and it’s defended on the grounds that students need ‘protecting’ from such views and ‘safe spaces’ need to be created where those views will be denied access. Those opposed to ‘no-platforming’ argue that it infantilises students. The whole point of going to university, they say, is that they should be exposed to views we may not share ourselves.  How else, it’s argued, can we develop a proper sense of proportion?

So what are we to make of all this? Should Jo Brand be attacked for her tasteless joke in the way she has been, or has it all been taken out of proportion? Should the police be investigating it? Is it right for the ASA to ban ads that could cause ‘serious or widespread offence’ by promoting ‘harmful gender stereotypes’? Is ‘No-platforming’ a legitimate practice or an infringement of free speech? In general, do we need bodies and laws to protect us from the exercise of free speech, or can we look after ourselves? In short:  are we losing our sense of proportion?

Let us know what you think.

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