John Harris

Journalist & Author

Fuming over Frankie Boyle will not erase discrimination | John Harris

Pseudo media storms over Frankie Boyle’s Paralympics tweets obscure real issues about people’s rights, wealth and power

How easy it is to be Frankie Boyle, the somewhat nihilist Scottish comic, Sun columnist and specialist in the very modern trade of courting self-serving outrage — or, as the comedian Stewart Lee has said of Jeremy Clarkson, “having controversial opinions for money”.

The past five days have seen Boyle deliver an absolute masterclass. On Wednesday he punched his thoughts about the Paralympics into Twitter. Weirdly enough, they were not lachrymose salutes to the games’ abiding spirit of hope and endeavour but, for the most part, wisecracks that might have fallen from the mouth of any marginally offensive club comedian: “Austrian Paralympians seem a lot more able-bodied than most regular Scottish people… Apparently, the Saudi Arabian Paralympic team is mainly thieves… Sadly, our Paralympian in the high jump isn’t expected to match his personal best. But I hear it doesn’t count as it was ‘Taliban assisted’.”

Compared with his most infamous stuff, this was pretty tame. But context is all and, given that the infectious sense of national togetherness that briefly flickered to life a few weeks ago has now settled into a kind of brittle smugness, it was once again the done thing to froth with outrage about a figure of relatively little significance.

Note: Boyle is now in the midst of a nationwide tour that stretches into December (hyped up as his last, though that’s an old trick), and he has a DVD out for Christmas. He must, therefore, have been thrilled when the Daily Mirror awarded him a front page: “TV bosses lance Boyle,” ran the headline, flagging up a “source” at Channel 4 claiming that the time had come to “wash our hands” of him. Such was a particularly rum turn in the story: the same channel that in 2010 waved through a very nasty Boyle quip about the severely disabled son of the model Katie Price, and was later censured by Ofcom, suddenly seeming to get cold feet. Put another way, it was OK with a joke about a blind and autistic eight-year-old raping his mother – “simply absurdist satire“, it insisted at the time – but to crack off-key gags about the Paralympics is apparently verboten.

The charity Mencap has played its time-honoured role, praising Channel 4 for its disability programming, but claiming that it would be “disappointing if these steps were undermined by providing a comedian who has repeatedly caused profound offence to disabled people opportunities to do so again”. On the face of it, Boyle and his opponents are locked in a symbiotic embrace, whereby he gives them something to do, and they serve the notoriety that keeps him in business. If he is not around, someone else will usually take his place, as happened just before the Boyle hoo-ha, when Mencap thundered about a George Galloway tweet that had drawn on the Scots football-terrace vernacular and called someone a “windae licker“, and the MP for Bradford East eventually apologised. In all this, one very British thought seems to be mysteriously absent: “Leave him – he’s not worth it.”

But that is not the way modern Britain works. Public discourse has been largely washed of the language of ideology, social structures and the like. In its place, there stands the one shining legacy of the left’s contribution to recent history: an increasingly consensual belief in the policing of language, as if rubbing out the symptoms of inequality will somehow erase their cause. Meanwhile, celebrity culture and social media elevate Boyle and his like, and you end up with a news archetype that now recurs about twice a week, when someone (usually famous, but not necessarily so) makes a questionable remark, and it all goes off.

The stories flare into life, and then vanish just as quickly: they are not parables that might somehow change public attitudes, but silly spasms that fill a bit of space. Who now remembers Jeremy Clarkson demanding that striking public sector workers be shot, or calling for the abolition of the Welsh language? What about Alan Davies making a slightly careless point about the Hillsborough disaster, Rio Ferdinand’s “choc-ice” (re)tweet, or Ricky Gervais’s infantile “mong” controversy? All grist to the churnalism mill, signifying precious little.

Underneath all this, two connected issues bubble away. First, as anyone halfway conversant with social theory could tell you, there is a strong sense of these pseudo-storms obscuring real issues about people’s rights, the distribution of wealth and power, and what we now call institutionalised prejudice – something neatly dramatised by the way that the Boyle hoo-ha overshadowed the inspired protest about the involvement in the Paralympics of Atos, the corporation whose contract for work capability assessments makes them a byword for the government’s unforgivable treatment of disabled people.

Second, it seems self-evident that vigilance about “hate speech” is in danger of curdling into a state of continuing hysteria. The police – the police! – investigate “bullying” on Twitter, drunken fools who issue “racist rants” on public transport go to jail, and, in response to such lunacies, fairly unpleasant people can easily become renowned martyrs. Put another way, while zero-tolerance comes hammering down on random targets, does Britain feel like a gentler, more accepting place? Not really. Such, perhaps, is what happens when you remove responsibility for human prejudice from the public realm and habitually call in the clunking fist of the state – which is a perverse consequence, to say the least.

Another storm-in-a-teacup will presumably be along by the end of this week – though, over the past few days, at least one outlet has been giving plenty of space to a story that actually matters, bringing news of the anti-Atos protests and the wider issue of welfare-to-work to an audience of close to a million people. For the details, have a look at Frankie Boyle’s Twitter feed. Funny, that.

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