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Billy Connolly and the death of free speech

5 July 2019

5:00 PM

5 July 2019

5:00 PM

I hope readers will forgive me for returning to a subject I addressed here recently. It was a reflection on the current confusion over who in our society is allowed to speak and who is not.

Back then I referred to the oddity of the YouTuber Carl Benjamin being forced to live with his worst ‘joke’ forever while Jo Brand appeared to be able to be forgiven for hers in no seconds flat. Incidentally, since the comedienne advocated an upgrade in the contents of the trend for ‘milkshaking’ it has indeed been stepped up a gear. 

Last weekend in Portland, Oregon so-called ‘anti-fascists’ reportedly laced their offerings with skin-corroding substances to attack a journalist. Is Brand to be accused of ‘incitement’, or should she not be because she is famous? And left-wing.

But just as I was wondering what the rules are in the current speech game, another example was going on right then and there. For as Hardeep Singh described here, last month a 54-year old man was fired from his job at Asda for sharing a video clip online. 

Brian Leach was summarily dismissed for breaching his employer’s social media policy. The clip which he shared online, and for which he was sacked, was a clip of Billy Connolly being rude about religion. You can see the clip here.

Of course as a number of people have pointed out, it is possible that if Mr Leach had shared a clip of, say, a comedian only being rude about Christianity then he might have been OK. But it appears that the fact that the clip in question showed Billy Connolly being rude about all religion – including Islam – is the reason that he is now no longer in work. 

In a statement of contrition that must have been dictated by some social justice Beria, Mr Leach explained how only after speaking with colleagues did he realise how important people’s faith was to them, especially ‘the sensitive nature’ of ‘the holy place of Islam.’

Much could be said about Asda becoming yet another enforcer of a de facto Islamic blasphemy law. A situation in which one might joke about the Western Wall, St Paul’s Cathedral or St Peter’s in Rome, but woe betide you if you were to make a joke about the Kaaba. 

It is a pathetic and presumptuous position for a supermarket chain to find itself in. I wonder which ulema Asda consulted? Or whether the HR department managed the fatwa all on its own? It’s enough to make me call for a boycott of Asda, though I’m sure not everybody would believe me if I volunteered to lead that charge.

In any case what needs to be thought about in all of this is the wider question that it provokes.

Billy Connolly is an undisputed national treasure. As well as being one of the funniest men alive he is also one of the most foul-mouthed. From his early appearances on Parkinson onwards he has shocked audiences as he has amused them, and nothing has prevented him being warmly embraced – and indeed held – in the nation’s bosom.

So the question is, why is Billy Connolly allowed to say something that Brian Leach is not? I have pondered and pondered this. It is true that many societies have had a class of person (Medieval courts had jesters for instance) who were allowed to say things that would get others in trouble. But it isn’t clear to me Billy Connolly is merely a court jester in our society. He is widely loved, admired, respected for his success and taken seriously when he speaks on serious matters, as he did recently when talking about his deteriorating health. It is not as though we have afforded Connolly the jester’s role and can then castigate any non-official fools when they tread over the jester’s line.

The only thing I can think of – as with the case of Carl Benjamin and Jo Brand – is that we are constructing a two-tier speech system in our country. It is true that celebrities can have their whole lives destroyed (witness the recent case of Danny Baker) if they say, or are believed to have said, something stupid or unforgivable.

So they do not all have carte blanche to say what they like. But we do seem to have agreed that ordinary folk are allowed to say one set of things while famous folk can all get away with saying another. 

There probably isn’t much interest in focussing on this, because it isn’t very glamorous or award-winning work were it to be done. But I would like to know what these rules are and how people can either pull them down or work their lives out around them. 

If a supermarket worker isn’t allowed to even share a video, let alone express an opinion, which a much-loved celebrity is, then it isn’t hard to see why a growing sense of grievance will emerge. All fuelled by the correct impression that things are stacked against the ordinary person in this country and in favour of the famous.


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