Where we see vulnerability, Frankie Boyle sees a target

Frankie Boyle passes off his jokes about rape and "retards" as satire, but it is just vile with a smile, says Nicky Clark.

What has Frankie Boyle got that Jim Davidson hasn’t? Celebrity friends on Twitter, for a start. These sons of Glaswegians both like to think of themselves as edgy, opposed to political correctness and telling it like it is. If "funny for money" is a spectrum then Jim stays to the right and Frankie stays to the left, but they are in step.
 
They both have armies of devoted fans ready to pay for the privilege of the comedy of cruelty. They talk about free speech, but I see it as having a higher purpose than ridiculing a glamour model’s children, or making jokes about "special needs". 

Whereas Davidson is overt, obvious and blatant in his bigotry, Boyle, like the teacher he wanted to be, is educating us lesser souls that he knows best and we really need to listen. Call it satire, but to me, it’s just vile with a smile.
 


The BBC has hosted both of these “comics” and brought their humour to a wider audience. However, that relationship has waned and died in both cases. Boyle wrote a letter detailing how it wasn’t his fault and made a beeline for taboo-busting Channel 4. His new sketch show got several complaints for “jokes” which demonstrate both his favourite topic and some people’s tolerance for cruelty.

In a few short punchy sentences, Frankie realised his talent lay in belittling and dehumanising a blind autistic child, but he packaged this up as a comment about Katie Price's celebrity and called it satire. I’m not sure that’s exactly what people immediately think of when they hear the word satire. I think of iconoclasts, destroyers of pomposity, the pretension of politics laid bare.
 
Suggesting that an innocent child needs to be prevented from fucking his own mother isn’t exactly an exhaustive deconstruction of our celebrity culture. And suggesting that his mother and step-father were fighting over his custody in a divorce because neither wanted him due to his disability, doesn’t exactly address the issue of a media obsessed with reality TV shows, or the dumbing down of a ratings driven medium. But as I say, we all have our own interpretation of satire.



Ultimately, however it’s dressed up, the truth is that where we see vulnerability, Frankie sees a target. He likes the word “retard” which I’m sure he would like us to believe is a statement referencing linguistic oppression. I think he just likes to mock the “weak”.
 
If he feels oppressed by others asking him not to use it, how does he think it feels to be a learning disabled person having abuse screamed at them in the street? It’s pretty oppressive to be too scared to leave your home, because people who find “Fun Boy” Frankie and his arsenal of barbed comments “hilarious” tend to copy their heroes. School is tough enough when you have a disability. Bullies must bless the day when their scriptwriter got his own show.
 

Gemma Hayter, the woman with learning disabilities ask to drink urine and beaten to death in 2010, could tell Frankie a thing or two about hatred and oppression. I doubt it would make him cry like the documentary on Palestine which brought him to tears. Having clearly learned from the old style bigots, Frankie lets his left-leaning, caring side show so that the obviousness of his bullying gets diluted enough so as to be overlooked in favour of the “good stuff”. Gemma was learning disabled and she found some friends who liked a laugh. They liked it so much that they laughed and laughed as they tortured her to death and then dumped her naked body by a railway line. 

Perhaps they didn’t call her “retard” as they tortured her. But it's likely that they did, because hate crimes, as with all bullying, often begin with a “joke” and verbal abuse. It’s unlikely Gemma would have got any of the “jokes” that preceded her murder. She wasn’t cynical or aware enough of her own vulnerability to know the difference between being a friend and being a toy to be played with and then thrown away. To her family, she was a person who mattered not a punchline to a joke. Certainly not “just a retard”. 

I suppose the difference is in the detail as you exchange tweets with other celebrities, then tweet rape “jokes” followed by info on rape survivor fundraisers. Smart clever, ironic, satirical even. Bizarrely, the same stars who appear on Comic Relief to tearfully tell us about projects which help disabled children recover from bullying in school seem willing to effectively hold your coat; giving you the credibility to get TV shows commissioned where you can verbally punch disabled people in the face.

Funny ha ha.

The point is, Frankie, when I see your face, all I see is man who knows better, laughing all the way to the bank. All I think of are children, who become adults, who get beaten to death because celebrities like you normalise stigmatising attitudes through bigoted jokes.

Your way is to follow the path of "never apologise, never explain" and certainly don’t change - because just like Jim Davison, you know there’s enormous amounts of money to be made from misery.

I suppose that’s not your problem though, is it? You just make the mess. You can’t be expected to clean it up.
 

Or, as the original title of Tramadol Nights put it: Deal with this, retards.

Nicky Clark tweets: @mrsnickyclark 

Who's laughing? Photo: Getty Images
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Boris Johnson peddled absurd EU myths – and our disgraceful press followed his lead

Press coverage of the referendum was designed to inflame xenophobia and our worst “Little England” instincts.

The pound plummeted, the Prime Minister resigned, stock markets plunged and the UK began to unravel, as did the post-1945 world order. Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Marine Le Pen and Isis were celebrating the Brexit vote but that didn’t stop our disgraceful national press from crowing. “Take a bow, Britain!” the Daily Mail declared. “So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, ADIEU”, the Sun quipped in a headline. The Daily Telegraph proclaimed the “birth of a new Britain”.

They and others – the Express, the Morning Star, several of the Sunday papers – were claiming victory: a victory achieved after a relentless campaign of lies and Soviet-style propaganda about the European Union that long pre-dated the referendum. Indeed, it was a campaign that began in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Boris Johnson, who had been fired by the Times for making up a quotation, was the Telegraph’s correspondent in Brussels.

Johnson did not invent Euroscepticism but he took it to new levels. A brilliant caricaturist, he made his name by mocking, lampooning and ridiculing the EU. He wrote stories headlined “Brussels recruits sniffers to ensure that Euro-manure smells the same”, “Threat to British pink sausages” and “Snails are fish, says EU”. He wrote about plans to standardise condom sizes and ban prawn cocktail flavour crisps. He set up Jacques Delors, who was then the European Commission president, as a bogeyman and claimed credit for persuading Denmark to reject the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 with a Sunday Telegraph splash – “Delors plan to rule Europe” – that was seized on by the Nej campaign.

To Johnson, it was all a bit of a jape. “[I] was sort of chucking these rocks over the garden wall and I listened to this amazing crash from the greenhouse next door over in England as everything I wrote from Brussels was having this amazing, explosive ­effect on the Tory party – and it really gave me this, I suppose, rather weird sense of power,” he told the BBC years later.

That many of Johnson’s stories bore scant relation to the truth did not matter. They were colourful and fun. The Telegraph and right-wing Tories loved them. So did other Fleet Street editors, who found the standard Brussels fare tedious and began to press their own correspondents to follow suit. I know this because I became the Brussels correspondent of the Times in 1999 and suffered the consequences.

Soon, a Europe of scheming bureaucrats plotting to rob Britain of its ancient liberties, or British prime ministers fighting gallant rearguard actions against an increasingly powerful superstate, or absurd directives on banana shapes, became the only narratives that many papers were interested in. They were narratives that exploited our innate nationalism, distrust of foreigners and sense of superiority. They were narratives so strong that our political leaders mostly chose to play along with them.

The EU is arrogant, bureaucratic, wasteful and meddlesome. It desperately needs reforming. But post-Boris, its great achievements – cementing peace, uniting the continent, creating the world’s largest single market, enabling its citizens to travel and live anywhere they choose, busting mono­polies, improving the environment – have gone largely unreported. Similarly ignored is that Britain has many natural allies in Europe and has enjoyed some significant successes: competition policy, free trade, eastward enlargement. The French now regard the EU as a plot to impose Anglo-Saxon economics on the continent. True, we lost the argument on the euro and the Schengen Agreement, but we won opt-outs.

With a few honourable exceptions – such as the Financial Times, the Times and the Guardian – the referendum coverage was merely a supercharged version of what had gone before. It was led by the biggest broadsheet (the Telegraph), the biggest mid-­market paper (the Mail) and the biggest tabloid (the Sun). And it was based on myths: that we pay £350m a week to Brussels, that we can continue to enjoy access to the single market without freedom of movement, that millions of Turks are heading our way because their country is about to join the EU, that immigrants are destroying the NHS rather than keeping it going.

The coverage was designed to inflame xenophobia and our worst “Little England” instincts. Loughborough University found that 82 per cent of all referendum stories, adjusted for newspaper circulations, were negative. The conventional wisdom is that newspapers don’t matter any more but they do when just 635,000 votes for Remain ­instead of Leave would have averted this national catastrophe. They do when the press is a primary source of information for millions of Brits. They do when most of our papers have relentlessly portrayed the EU as the monster of Johnson’s fertile imagination, not just for a few months, but for more than two decades.

The referendum was a chance for our national press, particularly the tabloid press, to restore its standing after the phone-hacking scandal and to prove its continuing worth to the British people. Sadly, most newspapers chose wilfully to deceive, mislead and inflame. They decided to follow Johnson’s lead by peddling lies and phoney patriotism. They helped him to hoodwink the millions of poorer, less-educated Britons – those who will be the first to suffer from Brexit’s consequences – into voting against their own interests.

Johnson campaigned against a myth of his own creation, with the result that a mendacious pundit, one who achieved prominence by writing entertaining but dangerous nonsense, is the odds-on favourite to be our next prime minister.

Martin Fletcher is a former foreign editor of the Times

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies