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21 March 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 4:39pm

No Ricky Gervais, defending offensive shitposters isn’t a matter of free speech

The freedom to joke is not in jeopardy.

By Nick Pettigrew

Ricky Gervais has gone on the offensive.

Not in his usual manner – calling people ‘mongs’, doubling down on his transphobia by comparing trans people to chimps in his latest standup special or by foisting The Invention Of Lying on an unsuspecting public.

This time he’s thrown his considerable heft behind a gent who goes by the name of Count Dankula. In the likely event you don’t know who Mr Dankula is, he’s a “self-confessed shitposter” whose hobby is posting videos filmed in his bedroom on Youtube with titles such as “Give minorities all your money”, “Eating ice cream is gay” and “Snapchatting your balls to a Livestreamer”.

Count’s stock in trade is point-missing whataboutery, finding the extremes of an otherwise reasonable view to try and discredit it, and generally being the guy you get stuck next to at a student party who has some views on veganism that will blow your tiny provincial mind, dude. 

Dankula came to the attention of more than just his 130,000 Youtube subscribers recently by being found guilty of breaching Section 127 of the 2003 U.K. Communications Act, which prohibits “grossly offensive, indecent, obscene, or menacing” electronic communications.” He did this by repeatedly saying “Want to gas the Jews?” to his girlfriend’s dog, making it watch Hitler rallies and trying to teach it to perform a Nazi salute. All the relevant information on the case was viewed by the court, the evidential standard was deemed to have been met, and the verdict was given. He is due to be sentenced in April, with a maximum sentence of six months theoretically possible (although extremely unlikely for a first offence).

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People have leapt to Dankula’s defence and for the defence of “free speech”. These have included Katie Hopkins (who described migrants as cockroaches”), snake-oil salesman and Alex Jones glove puppet Paul J Watson and convicted criminal Tommy Robinson, whose hobbies include punching migrants

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Milo Yiannopolous would no doubt be supporting him on Twitter too, had he not been thrown off for expressing grossly offensive views.

These people and their supporters, have very specific targets for their open and frank discussions – Jews, immigrants, Muslims, trans people, etc. Odd that they never seem to want to discuss the morality of corporate tax fraud, republicanism, institutional misogyny, etc. And joining them is, of course, Ricky Gervais.

Other comics have criticised the ruling, saying comedians should be allowed to tell whatever jokes they want without fear of prosecution. Saying “Want to gas the Jews?” 23 times may be one of those jokes that loses something in the telling. Either way, the case has thrown together stranger bedfellows than a swinger’s party on The Island Of Dr Moreau.

Fans of offensive comedy worry that the verdict will set a precedent that will rob them of their source of entertainment. They also seem willing to set aside the content of what the comedy is being offensive about, or how, or why. This is the equivalent of drinking to get drunk and not caring how foul or revolting the booze is, so long as it gets you there. If you watch comedy to be shocked, a taser gun is far more efficient and has never made light of a Holocaust.

The problem with this kind of fellowship is that it presumes everyone is playing the same sport. Otherwise-reasonable writers and comedians condemning this law (the true target of their condemnation, surely, rather than the verdict – the court simply enforced that law) are neither useful nor idiots but in a dim light could be mistaken for both.

To follow the sport analogy, they want Dankula to be able to use the same boxing ring as they do. The difference is, they feel he is doing the same kind of sparring as they are, when in fact he is figuratively kicking a cat to death and setting fire to it to make idiots smirk.

Also, the freedom to joke has not been placed under jeopardy here. The lack of freedom to broadcast grossly offensive material, a law that has existed for fifteen years without comedy ceasing to exist, has been enforced. If the 2003 Act is such a threat to free speech, it has been remarkably slow in getting there.

If Ricky Gervais really is a fan of free speech, maybe he should stop blocking Twitter users who criticise him, or retweet posts that do anything other than shower him with praise. And if Count Dankula wants to continue in his career as a shitposter, he needs to accept that posting shit sometimes gets your hands dirty.