Friday, 12 November 2010

No laughing matter

A recent article on The Register drew my attention to a bizarre and concerning incident in France:
Glamourous MEP Rachida Dati complained to the police after an unnamed 40-year-old wrote to her asking for an "inflation", the Telegraph reports.

The request was a reference to a recent, widely-reported Freudian slip by Dati, who confused the French words for inflation and fellatio in a radio interview.

Talking about overseas investment funds she said: "I see some of them looking for returns of 20 or 25 per cent, at a time when fellatio is almost non-existent."
In response to his rather clever joke,
Lyon's Judicial Police raided [the man's] home and arrested him. Following 48 hours in custody, he faces a prison sentence of up to a month and a fine of up to €10,000 on charges of "displaying contempt towards a public servant".
Eh bien, les Fran├žais sont fous. It does makes you wonder what sort of treatment we can expect as the EU assumes greater policing powers, but the truth is that our own police, politicians, and courts have already lost their sense of humour.

Trainee accountant Paul Chambers lost his job, and faces thousands of pounds worth of fines, for an off-the-cuff remark on Twitter. Following closures due to snow, he declared:
"Robin Hood Airport is closed. You've got a week... otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!"
[Defence counsel Stephen Ferguson] said the prosecution had failed to prove his client had any intention to threaten anyone or that he thought there was any risk someone would interpret the tweet in this way.

The latest victim of Twitter trouble is Gareth Compton, who tweeted
Can someone please stone Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to death? I shan't tell Amnesty if you don't. It would be a blessing, really.
In bad taste, perhaps, but could anyone seriously interpret this as anything other than a joke? It's a far cry from "Behead those who insult Islam".

Sean Gabb's article on the subject is well worth reading. Recalling his youth, he writes
there was never any question that jokes in poor taste might be illegal. I remember reading an article once in The Spectator where Auberon Waugh called on a television producer to be put up against a wall and shot. Some people laughed. Others scowled. There was never any question that the police might be involved.

England is now a country where virtually any words uttered in public can be treated as a criminal offence. Without thinking very hard, I can remember how Nick Griffin of the British National Party stood trial for having called Islam “a wicked vicious faith”. I can remember how a drunken student was arrested and fined for telling a policeman that his horse looked “gay”. I can remember how a man was arrested and charged and fined for standing beside the Cenotaph and reading out the names of the British war dead in Iraq. I remember a case from this year where a pacifist unfurled a banner outside an army cadet training base. “Stop training murderers”, it said. His home was promptly raided by police with dogs, while a helicopter hovered overhead. He was arrested and cautioned.
After noting the many laws that should be repealed, Gabb makes an important point about those who enforce the law:
Even if police powers could be rolled back to where they were in about 1960, these traditional powers would still be used oppressively. Power is restrained in part by law. Beyond that, it is restrained by common sense and common decency. These are qualities now absent from the police in England, and no changes in law or exhortations from the top can bring them back. Anyone who wants all the policing our taxes buy needs his head examined.

There is no doubt that all those High Tory critics of Robert Peel were right about the dangers of setting up a state police force. It took over a hundred and fifty years to show how right they were. But, when someone is arrested for making jokes about Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, we can see that the line has been crossed that separates a state with police from a police state.
No doubt there are still many good police officers, but I'm sure Gabb is right that there are also many bad ones, and that police culture has shifted. Long gone is the historic tradition,
that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent upon every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence

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