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Laughter can ease life's pain - we must protect the freedom to joke

We can't let comedians be censored.

The world is in serious need of a laugh right now. A ridiculous, oversized belly laugh would let the tension ease out. We are on edge, with that nasty grating feeling, a bit like when there’s raw skin in your mouth and you can’t stop touching it with your tongue. 

Politics. Life. Everything.

When things are at their most difficult, the extreme moments in life, when you can’t talk about Brexit one more time without screaming, then comedy can ease the pain. Stand-up comedian and writer Grainne Maguire believes that trauma sometimes brings out the best laughs. “Comedy is a challenge to heartbreak,” says Maguire, who writes for 8 Out of 10 Cats and BBC Radio 4’s Now Show. The Irish comedian, who tweeted updates on her periods to the Irish Taoiseach as part of an original attempt to bring attention to the country’s ridiculously historic abortion laws, believes that comedy gets to truth and authorities don’t like that.

And so it is in Spain right now. Comedy, it turns out, is touching a nerve, as it often does, and rather surprisingly the lawyers are getting involved. Comedy is not only a threat, but under threat.

What’s bizarre is, this is Spain, a modern democracy, a solid, sensible country at the centre of Europe. Locking people up for making a joke, that’s something you might expect from an authoritarian and struggling state. But Spain?

Well, it turns out, this is Spain in the 21st century. The list of comedy offences reported in the latest issue of Index on Censorship magazine is not short. Spanish comedian Dani Mateo was told to testify before a judge in May for telling a joke referring to a monument built by Franco’s regime as “shit”. He told the joke during a satirical show. Now it doesn’t sound like the best joke in the world, but hell, we defend his right to tell it. And Mateo is not alone in the Spanish comic fraternity. There’s Facu Díaz, who was prosecuted last year for posting jokes on social media; Cassandra Vera, who was sentenced to a year in prison for making jokes about a former Spanish president; and three women who were accused of a religious hate crime for mocking a traditional Easter procession. Then there’s the two Spanish puppeteers whose Punch and Judy show included a sign for a made-up terrorist organisation carried by a witch. They spent a year fighting prosecution, unable to leave the country for weeks, receiving anonymous threats and having to report regularly to the police.

Jokes are a barometer of public mood, and as British comedian Andy Hamilton told this summer’s Hay Festival, you can even use them to test how much the public like or dislike a politician or public figure. He remembered making a joke about then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and being told by one of her staunchest supporters to expect a wave of outrage. On checking, he found just three complaints, and that’s when, he said, he knew Thatcher was on the way out. Perhaps someone could test out a joke about Theresa May and see how the complaints barometer swings? Author John O’Farrell says: “It’s such a sign of a healthy democracy that we can laugh at our leaders.”

Jokes do take the temperature of the nation, and one of many reasons politicians fear them is, as Mark Twain said, “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.”

Politicians fear being made fun of, and fear that a satirical representation may take root in the electorate’s brain. They fear the public seeing their weaknesses. Some may remember how TV’s Spitting Image reduced each member of the cabinet to a single ridiculous idea, a spitting former Home Secretary Roy Hattersley or a tiny David Steel tucked in the top pocket of David Owen (joint leaders of the SDP-Liberal alliance). Not good for their egos, not good for their future prospects. Steel said later that the sketch definitely affected his image.

Joke-telling is not the only ingredient in the comedy cupboard that upsets the powers that be. The most obvious creators of exaggerated portraits are newspaper cartoonists, who sometimes feel the long arm of the police on their shoulders as a result.

South African cartoonist Zapiro told Index on Censorship: “We provoke thought, even if that thought is pretty outrageous. Others can do it too. We just occupy a space where you can really push the boundaries.” Zapiro faced a six-year court battle with South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma over one of his cartoons. But Zapiro is just as feisty as ever, and reckons he is bolshier than the generations that have come after him. Meanwhile in Germany this February talk show host and comedian Jan Böhmermann was hit by a civil court action banning him from repeating a poem that was rude about Turkey’s President Erdogan.

Cracking down on comedy is just one attempt to command and control society. And when solid modern democracies such as Spain and Germany start taking their comedians to court it’s a sign that society is feeling so out of sorts that they think free speech no longer feels important or worth defending. In fact it needs that key freedom now more than ever.

O’Farrell believes authoritarians are wrong anyway, that comedy is less about power and more about releasing our Munch-like screams. Let’s get our Adam’s apples warmed up.

Rachael Jolley is editor of Index on Censorship magazine. The summer issue is out next week and features an interview with Zapiro. On July 4, the Index Stand Up For Satire comedy night will feature Al Murray, Tim Key, Felicity Ward and more.

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Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear