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.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Manchester Gorton?

Will Labour lose in Manchester Gorton?

The death of Gerald Kaufman will trigger a by-election in his Manchester Gorton seat, which has been Labour-held since 1935.

Coming so soon after the disappointing results in Copeland – where the seat was lost to the Tories – and Stoke – where the party lost vote share – some overly excitable commentators are talking up the possibility of an upset in the Manchester seat.

But Gorton is very different to Stoke-on-Trent and to Copeland. The Labour lead is 56 points, compared to 16.5 points in Stoke-on-Trent and 6.5 points in Copeland. (As I’ve written before and will doubtless write again, it’s much more instructive to talk about vote share rather than vote numbers in British elections. Most of the country tends to vote in the same way even if they vote at different volumes.)

That 47 per cent of the seat's residents come from a non-white background and that the Labour party holds every council seat in the constituency only adds to the party's strong position here. 

But that doesn’t mean that there is no interest to be had in the contest at all. That the seat voted heavily to remain in the European Union – around 65 per cent according to Chris Hanretty’s estimates – will provide a glimmer of hope to the Liberal Democrats that they can finish a strong second, as they did consistently from 1992 to 2010, before slumping to fifth in 2015.

How they do in second place will inform how jittery Labour MPs with smaller majorities and a history of Liberal Democrat activity are about Labour’s embrace of Brexit.

They also have a narrow chance of becoming competitive should Labour’s selection turn acrimonious. The seat has been in special measures since 2004, which means the selection will be run by the party’s national executive committee, though several local candidates are tipped to run, with Afzal Khan,  a local MEP, and Julie Reid, a local councillor, both expected to run for the vacant seats.

It’s highly unlikely but if the selection occurs in a way that irritates the local party or provokes serious local in-fighting, you can just about see how the Liberal Democrats give everyone a surprise. But it’s about as likely as the United States men landing on Mars any time soon – plausible, but far-fetched. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.