Banning comics is a terrible thing... except when it isn't | Dave Cohen grapples with the Dieudonne row

Banning comics is a terrible thing... except when it isn't

Dave Cohen grapples with the Dieudonne row

We all believe in freedom of speech in this country, don’t we? It’s our inalienable right – and thanks to a high profile campaign in 2012 from Rowan Atkinson and others we’ve successfully done away with the section of a Public Order Act that tried to outlaw ‘threatening, abusive and insulting words or behaviour.’ All pretty straightforward: I certainly agreed.

Then last week in France a row broke out over the ‘threatening, abusive and insulting words or behaviour’ used by comedian M'Bala M'Bala Dieudonne. Like most people in this country I’d first heard of him thanks to West Bromwich Albion footballer Nicolas Anelka, who recently celebrated a goal with Dieudonne’s trademark salute. It was recognised by many as an anti-semitic gesture, though Anelka claimed it was merely a bit of fun against the establishment.

Last Thursday, the French government banned Dieudonne's show, only for the ban to be overturned by the local court in Nantes, who said it should go ahead. At which point French Interior Minister Manuel Valls over-ruled the local court, and the show was banned anyway. It all seemed a bit Big Brother, the heavy hand of government asserting itself over the right of individuals to enjoy their comedy shows. The following morning I was asked to appear on a TV news programme to debate the business with an MP from the Front National, which is like a French version of the BNP, only much more popular.

My instinct, which I think I share with most comics, is that banning anything in comedy can't ever be a good thing. It's part of a comedian's job to say things that no-one else is, and if that involves being offensive to a section of the community then so be it.

Then I started finding out more about the man and his shows. Dieudonne denied being racist, but here was a guy writing sketches in which Israeli soldiers were dressed as Nazis, and stating publicly that when a Jewish TV interviewer was mentioned, he thought maybe the gas chambers were not a bad thing.

Dieudonne’s argument that the infamous 'quenelle' gesture was a bit of harmless fun and nothing to do with anti-semitism was weakened somewhat as, after the ban was announced, lots of wacky French boys photographed themselves doing the 'anti-establishment' salute outside the Anne Frank Museum, the Toulouse school where Jewish children were killed by an Islamic militant, and Auschwitz Concentration Camp. Oh my aching sides.

There are one or two Jews I've come across who see anti-semitism in the slightest criticism of anything Jewish (Seinfeld's ‘Uncle Leo’ was the great comic example) but most Jews can tell the difference between criticism of Israel and anti-semitism. Dieudonne's statement that he's merely anti-Zionist is hard to square with his suggestion that French Jews should be sent to the gas chambers.

Even so I was extremely nervous about the interview. Some people say you shouldn’t debate with fascists at all as it gives them credibility. Also I was aware that it was not going to look great standing up for an unpopular government in a country I don't even live in, against an elected representative of that country who merely had to suggest that Big Government interferes too much in people's lives.

I arrived at the studio for the interview to be told I would not after all be talking to anyone from France's premier fascist party, but instead to Alexandre Hervaud, a perfectly reasonable journalist from a French magazine, who happened to have seen Dieudonne's show.

I'd love to think that the reason the French fascists pulled out of the interview was because they'd heard who they were going to be debating against. ‘Zut alors! Not Dave Cohen, Britain's most averagely successful stand-up comedian and comedy writer. We will not stand a chance against his carefully crafted and incisive arguments. Sacre bleu, find someone else Monsieur TV Producer.’

I suspect the reason was more likely that, having gone with the flow of public opinion - governments are interfering busybodies who shouldn't be allowed to tell us what we can and can't watch - they realised that if they went on TV to talk about it they would have to take a position that would not work to their advantage. Either they'd have to back the comedian, and his blatantly racist attacks, or support the government.

So instead of getting their five minutes of confrontational TV, they ended up with the two of us pretty well in agreement that banning Dieudonne's show was probably on balance the lesser of the two evils. It was a short piece.

What Alexandre had to say about the live show was actually the most interesting part of the piece. 90 per cent of Dieudonne's show is funny, very funny he said, but the 10 per cent of anti-semitic attacks were appalling and hateful, and he felt extremely uncomfortable to be watching it with the almost totally male crowd.

Regular viewers of Bernard Manning will be familiar with this technique. Manning's apologists always pointed to the fact that he was a brilliant comic, with great timing, and that he was an equal opportunities insulter of everybody. Indeed, if you've only seen footage of Manning from TV shows you'll wonder what the fuss was about.

Performing live, Manning would spend the first part of his show being a brilliant comic, getting the audience on his side and doing only safe material, albeit of a higher quality than many of his contemporaries. But at the end of the set, he'd ditch the comedy completely and deliver a hate-filled rant against the Pakis or the darkies. It was nothing less than incitement to racial hatred and violence, and if he’d been doing it anywhere other than a comedy club he would have been arrested.

After a brief attempt to appeal, Dieudonne has now agreed to the banning of his show, and this can only be viewed as a victory for the government against racism, whatever he says. While it's true that banning the show won't make anti-semitism disappear, it will at least make some people think before they take their wacky photos or randomly insult Jews of their acquaintance.

What would happen if a similar situation arose in this country? It's a long time since I've been part of the comedy circuit, but I do remember it being generally well-policed, as much by the promoters as by audiences. Anyone performing racist material was invariably told by the promoter that they would not be allowed back, and the result has, for the most part, been a racism-free circuit.

However irrelevant it may seem now, the circuit we have today was created largely by a group of people who were determined to prove that comedy could be funny and sharp and hard-hitting without being racist. Let's hope it can stay that way, without having to resort to government interference.

Published: 15 Jan 2014

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