Features Australia

Adventures on Thought Crime Island

21 April 2018

9:00 AM

21 April 2018

9:00 AM

Britain has broken out the banhammer and is coming after your favourite comedians. It’s also decided words matter more than deeds even if the deeds have fatal outcomes. Last week The Met boasted how it has 900 officers dedicated to chasing people down for writing rude words on Facebook while London is in the midst of a knife crime epidemic.

Here, for Australians’ sorrowful contemplation, is a brief letter from Thought Crime Island.

Let’s start with Nazi pugs. Scottish comedian Mark Meechan, aka ‘Count Dankula’, made a video of himself training his girlfriend’s pug to do a Nazi salute and was charged with ‘gross offensiveness’ by ‘inciting racial hatred’. The charge was so bonkers I half expected the RSPCA to step in to defend the dog. It’s a cute fawn pug. Its name is Buddha. Meechan has a face full of piercings and a hammer-and-sickle tattoo. His socialism and support for ‘right on’ causes – like Scottish independence – was not enough to save him, though. Yes, inciting anti-Semitism via the medium of pugs – according to one Scottish sheriff court – is a thing. Meechan was convicted and will be sentenced on April 23.

It’s not just Scottish judges deciding ‘context and intent are irrelevant’ when it comes to gags, either. Many ordinary members of the public have also lost their sense of humour. Comedienne Louise Reay told a joke about her ex at the Edinburgh Fringe. Her ex is now suing her for defamation. I quipped in the Australian last year that one ought not annoy the writer or she may put you in a book and kill you. The same logic applies a fortiori to comedians. If you piss a professional funny person off, you’ll finish up being the basis for a routine.

Someone needs to tell the professional victims who (at the behest of Police Scotland, note) went after Meechan and Reay’s wounded ex to pop into their local hardware, swallow a spoonful of cement, and harden up.

Part of this emerges out of a culture that mandates only people from a minority can tell jokes about that minority. To do otherwise is ‘punching down’. By this logic, I get to say ‘while gays have Grindr, lesbians have the Bunnings locator app (plus a ute and a Kelpie)’, but you (straights) don’t. This is daft. If Baddiel can quip that HM Forces don’t exist to make the world safe for Israel, so can I.

Attempts to stop ‘punching down’ are one thing; the other is equating words with violence. If I had a quid for every time I’ve been called ‘muff-muncher’ in my life I’d have bought my own island by now and given the writing away. ‘No one but a blockhead,’ said Samuel Johnson, ‘ever wrote, except for money.’ Having my pushbike pinched from out in front of Senator Leyonhjelm’s house in 2016 was far more annoying. It’s worse to be assaulted or have your house burgled than it is to be called a nasty name.

The law has long recognised this, hiving ‘mere words’ off to the civil courts and keeping the definition of incitement narrow. The Met, by contrast, cheerfully announced late last year that shoplifting, car crime and criminal damage are among ‘lower level’ offences that officers may not probe. Arresting people for making edgy pug videos or saying rude things about ‘gypsies’ on Facebook, though – that’s ongoing.

All of this nonsense came to a pitiful head in the case of 78-year-old London OAP Richard Osborn-Brooks. An ex-RAC manager and security guard, he was awoken when 37-year-old career criminal Henry Vincent broke into his Hither Green house just after midnight on Wednesday, April 4. Mr Osborn-Brooks – desperate to protect his wheelchair-bound wife – investigated. Vincent threatened him with a screwdriver and there was a scuffle in the kitchen. Mr Osborn-Brooks emerged the victor and was arrested on suspicion of murder. Fortunately (and presumably on the basis no jury in these islands would convict) he was later released without charge.

Then things started to get weird. Perhaps prompted by an extraordinary image (unearthed, of course, by the Sun) of Mr Osborn-Brooks sitting in his local with a pint of Guinness in each hand, members of the Traveller community – to which Henry Vincent belonged – decided to start decorating fences the length of the street with flowers, teddy-bears, and cloyingly sentimental condolence cards filled with comments to the effect that despite spending a total of 10 years inside for a string of violent crimes, Henry Vincent was ‘too good to walk the earth’. Mr Osborn-Brooks went into hiding. His neighbours tore down the mementos.

One presumes – as Vincent’s relatives clearly work on the ‘he may be a sack o’ crap but he was our sack o’ crap’ principle – every cemetery in spitting distance of Hither Green was then denuded of flowers, because Travellers restored the decorations. Mounted police appeared at either end of the street to keep residents and Travellers apart. Vincent’s relatives are threatening – in an organised crime version of the Shankill Road – to march his funeral cortege past Mr Osborn-Brooks’s house. The daily ritual of flower embellishment and removal continues as I write, while Richard Osborn-Brooks is under police protection.

We have forgotten acta non verba (and how awful it is to be a victim of, you know, actual crime). We are in the process of forgetting the whole basis of comedy. Reminder: you can’t say something isn’t a joke because you don’t find it funny, or you think the wrong person’s telling it.

It really is Thought Crime Island around here. Enid Blyton would be ashamed.

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