My war with Frankie Boyle

When edgy comedy is just bullying.

In the past few weeks, I briefly became a hot topic on Twitter; I was in a couple of national newspapers; I was written about exhaustively on every comedy website of note; and I became enough of a talking point - at least in certain small, Soho-based circles - that quite a few conversations I've had have begun with people asking, "How have you been?" You could say that I've been the centre of attention, which is what all comedians want, in a nutshell. So that's the good news.

The less good news is that I got all that attention by being called a c*** by a better-known television comedian, Frankie Boyle, in a tweet. This word is deemed so offensive that I typed it here with the asterisks already in place, rather than waiting for it to be censored, in case I should upset the feelings of a vulnerable sub-editor. I'm only half-joking.

A fair few people don't even like to look at that word on a page, let alone hear it. Imagine having it applied to you in full view of a large number of your peers by someone so influential that thousands of people will be inclined instinctively to agree without looking into the situation. That's been my month.

Shock doctrine

What I did to occasion the anger of my colleague was to write a blog, some months ago, which had belatedly come to his attention. In it, I remarked on how he had been involved in controversy after making jokes about Down's syndrome and then refusing to apologise to the mother of a sufferer who was in his audience. I wasn't the only comedian to feel uneasy about the impression of our industry that this incident gave to the general public. Several publicly criticised Boyle, feeling that, this time, he had gone too far in pursuit of shock laughs. But, for some reason, it was I who got on his wrong side. I'm reluctant to stir up the subject all over again, but it is a pressing one and I would like to clarify what I was trying to say: not about that comic in particular, but about comedy.

Stand-up has long been regarded as a kind of outlaw form of entertainment that exists somewhere on the boundaries of good taste and likes nothing better than to stray to the other side. This has made it one of the most successful art forms - for want of a less pretentious word - of the new century. And it has managed to hold on to this maverick reputation in spite of becoming more and more mainstream. You can now tune in to shows such as Mock the Week on BBC2 and hear gags that many comics would have shied away from, even in working men's clubs, not too long ago. I think most of us would agree that this is a step forward. We're adults, we know that a joke is a joke, we can choose to watch things or not, and so on.

The trouble is, if you don't draw a line somewhere, what may have started out as "edginess" can quickly turn into mean-spirited bullying of the weakest members of society. What's an acceptable subject for comedy? Those suffering from degenerative diseases? The Holocaust? Rape victims? I've seen all of these subjects covered by comedians in the past fortnight alone.

It is hard not to wonder whether comedy's freedom of speech is as much of a step forward as we thought, especially if all it means is that a largely white, middle-class audience gets to laugh at other people whose lives haven't turned out as well as theirs; or if, in the process, it allows stereotypes to be hammered home that comedy should be breaking down, rather than reinforcing.

Twitter trial

I am as guilty as anyone else of taking on soft targets to get laughs and saying things on the spur of the moment that, in hindsight, sound awful. I didn't intend to vilify the stand-up comic who called me a "coot" (as I paraphrased it to my mother), or anyone else who has let something slip while desperately chasing laughs, as we all do.

I am also aware - as my adversary pointed out - that I've done things that suggest a lack of integrity (advertising cider, appearing on shows that I knew weren't very good and giving a private performance for the Pope, though one of those may not be true).

I think that comedians should have a debate about the limits of their freedom to talk about things that could hurt defenceless people. If there are no limits, then fair enough. But live comedy might end up losing a bit of its faddishness. People will eventually tire of paying good money to see something that amounts to a crude exchange of insults. I mean, if I want to see that, I could just go on Twitter.

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.
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Standing up to China’s censors: an attempt to delete history backfires

For years now, the official Chinese position has been that no one was killed in Tiananmen Square.

At the time, the massacre in and around Tiananmen Square in Beijing on the night of 3 June 1989 was the worst thing I’d ever seen. In front of the Beijing Hotel, where my camera team and I took refuge after we’d escaped from the square itself, I counted 40 people killed or wounded by soldiers of the Chinese army. A photographer who was standing on the next balcony to ours was shot dead when the gunner of a passing tank casually sprayed the hotel with machine-gun bullets.

During the previous three weeks I had spent almost every day in the square, making friends with dozens of students who were demonstrating there. How many of them were killed that night I have never been able to find out. It’s not the kind of thing you can easily forgive or forget. 

For years now the official Chinese position has been that no one was killed in Tiananmen Square that night. This may or may not be literally true, though I saw for myself the bullet-scars on the stone steps of the monument in the middle of the square before they were repaired, so it probably isn’t. But this is just playing with words; the real killing fields were the avenues leading away from Tiananmen Square, such as Chang’an Avenue, which runs past the Beijing Hotel. The implication of the official line is that the massacre was simply invented by the western media. Fake news. Sad.

Tiananmen paralysed China for an entire month, and damaged its relations with the outside world for years. Even today, more than a quarter-century later, it retains its intense toxicity. A Chinese newspaper journalist I know got into trouble for referring to it as a “tragedy”; if you have to refer to it, you must call it simply “the Tiananmen events” – but it’s better not to mention it at all.

It was bad enough in what now seems with hindsight like the liberal, benevolent reign of Hu Jintao. Since 2012, when Xi Jinping came to power and introduced an increasingly ferocious crackdown on dissent, every official throughout the vast Chinese system is aware of the urgent need to keep away from sensitive subjects: not just Tiananmen, but the Cultural Revolution, Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Which is how, earlier this month, a Chinese import agency came into conflict with the oldest publishing house anywhere, over the world’s best and most respected journal of Chinese studies. The China Quarterly, double-blind and peer-reviewed, is owned by the School of Oriental and African Studies, but Cambridge University Press publishes it. The Quarterly’s website of course carries many articles on just these subjects. The import agency suddenly ordered CUP to take down all 315 of them, some dating back to the 1960s, from its website within China; if it didn’t happen, the Chinese said, they would be forced to close the entire website down.

CUP fell over itself to obey, in order, it said, “to ensure that other academic and educational materials we publish remain available to researchers and educators in this market”. Which, as a defence of freedom of speech, isn’t quite up there with John Milton, himself a Cambridge alumnus, in Areopagitica:  “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

The China Quarterly’s admirable editor, Tim Pringle, in the quiet but steely way that befits a scholar under pressure, allowed it to be known what CUP had done, and dozens of outraged scholars and others yelled about it as loudly as Twitter and Facebook would allow. The China Quarterly’s first editor, Roderick MacFarquhar, nowadays a sprightly octogenarian who teaches at Harvard, weighed in angrily on behalf of the organ whose high reputation he had helped to create, and some rough words were used about academic publishers who did the work of an autocracy’s censors for them.

To do it credit, CUP listened and realised what irreparable damage they were doing to the China Quarterly; and it announced on Monday that it was reinstating all the articles.

Pringle couldn’t resist a bit of high-minded reproof:  “Access to published materials of the highest quality is a core component of scholarly research,” he wrote. “It is not the role of respected global publishing houses such as CUP to hinder such access.” And he added:  “Our publication criteria will not change: scientific rigour and the contribution to knowledge about China.” Milton would have been proud of him.

Does any of this really matter? Well, it’s a useful object-lesson in how to approach China. Personally, I don’t think Xi Jinping and his friends, as they splash around in the lakes and swimming pools of Zhongnanhai, the Communist Party retreat beside the Forbidden City, will have known or heard anything about it. In spite of its refusal to admit the dreadfulness of the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square massacre, China isn’t really just an Orwellian society where officials labour away destroying or rewriting the files of the past. No doubt the party would like to, but it simply isn’t a shot on the board in the modern world.

You just have to turn to Sina Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter. After CUP decided to reverse its self-censoring operation, hundreds of brave souls in China took to the internet to greet the news with pleasure and relief. Some had the courage to put their names to their comments: “It is a triumph of morality,” wrote Zhang Lifan, a Beijing historian. Another historian, Sun Peidong, praised the international chorus of disapproval that had brought about CUP’s change of heart. Someone else, unnamed, wrote “Cambridge University has backbone.”

Even in the days of clampdown and repression, you can just about get away with saying this kind of thing; though within hours some government job’s-worth had deleted the entire discussion from Weibo. But right across China decent, honourable people who believe in telling the truth now know CUP and Cambridge University haven’t, after all, sold the pass.

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia