It’s all fun and games until someone gets tortured

We laugh at Ramzan Kadyrov just as we laughed at Gaddafi – until he started killing his own people.

Dictators and autocrats are funny. Their mixture of vanity and hubris is a fertile ground for comedy. Even Hitler can be reduced to an absurd figure, dancing with an inflatable globe. Comedy is tragedy plus timing, and dictators certainly create an abundance of the former.

At the same time, laughter is a weapon. When the former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu gave a speech and heard mocking cheers, rather than wails of excitement, he knew the game was up. When a repressed population no longer finds a tyrannical leader fearsome, it is a breakthrough; but when the west thinks of a dictator primarily as a joke rather than a threat, it is a problem.

There is a clear danger in allowing dictators to become jokes in the eyes of the west. Prior to the Arab spring, Colonel Gaddafi's incessant crimes against his own people were ignored in favour of colourful descriptions of his latest outrageous statement or choice of attire. It was only when the "eccentric" Gaddafi threatened to massacre his own citizens that the west realised once more that Gaddafi was not a benign jester.

Kim Jong-il's ludicrous claims – such as his round of 34 on Pyongyang's 7,700-yard championship golf course – are frequently remarked on, while his crimes are sometimes a footnote.

The latest short, brutal autocrat to mask his repugnant regime beneath a layer of amusing absurdity is Ramzan Kadyrov, the warlord who has turned Chechnya into his personal fiefdom through a mixture of human rights abuses, torture and murder.

The Chechen leader recently organised a football match featuring, among others, Diego Maradona, Luis Figo and Franco Baresi. It was clearly a propaganda exercise – and it worked. The photo above made it onto the back page of the Times.

The Guardian, meanwhile, posted an amused report from the match, with Kadyrov's "gruesome human rights abuses" not mentioned until the fifth paragraph, and even then only in passing. Indeed, from the start of March until today, the Guardian's only other story solely about Chechnya was another kickabout organised by Kadyrov – this time against an all-star team from Brazil.

Dictators should be laughed at, but when the media start to report predominantly on a regime's absurdities rather than its crimes, it plays into the hands of figures such as Gaddafi, Kadyrov and Kim – all of whom want the west to talk about anything except their crimes.

Satire has a place for undermining tyrants, but if the only reports that emerge from hellish countries such as Chechnya or North Korea are amusing pen portraits of their weirdo leaders then we forget about the boot pressed firmly on the neck of their citizens. That's not comedy, that's tragedy.

Grant Shapps on the campaign trail. Photo: Getty
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Grant Shapps resigns over Tory youth wing bullying scandal

The minister, formerly party chairman, has resigned over allegations of bullying and blackmail made against a Tory activist. 

Grant Shapps, who was a key figure in the Tory general election campaign, has resigned following allegations about a bullying scandal among Conservative activists.

Shapps was formerly party chairman, but was demoted to international development minister after May. His formal statement is expected shortly.

The resignation follows lurid claims about bullying and blackmail among Tory activists. One, Mark Clarke, has been accused of putting pressure on a fellow activist who complained about his behaviour to withdraw the allegation. The complainant, Elliot Johnson, later killed himself.

The junior Treasury minister Robert Halfon also revealed that he had an affair with a young activist after being warned that Clarke planned to blackmail him over the relationship. Former Tory chair Sayeedi Warsi says that she was targeted by Clarke on Twitter, where he tried to portray her as an anti-semite. 

Shapps appointed Mark Clarke to run RoadTrip 2015, where young Tory activists toured key marginals on a bus before the general election. 

Today, the Guardian published an emotional interview with the parents of 21-year-old Elliot Johnson, the activist who killed himself, in which they called for Shapps to consider his position. Ray Johnson also spoke to BBC's Newsnight:


The Johnson family claimed that Shapps and co-chair Andrew Feldman had failed to act on complaints made against Clarke. Feldman says he did not hear of the bullying claims until August. 

Asked about the case at a conference in Malta, David Cameron pointedly refused to offer Shapps his full backing, saying a statement would be released. “I think it is important that on the tragic case that took place that the coroner’s inquiry is allowed to proceed properly," he added. “I feel deeply for his parents, It is an appalling loss to suffer and that is why it is so important there is a proper coroner’s inquiry. In terms of what the Conservative party should do, there should be and there is a proper inquiry that asks all the questions as people come forward. That will take place. It is a tragic loss of a talented young life and it is not something any parent should go through and I feel for them deeply.” 

Mark Clarke denies any wrongdoing.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.