Saturday, 16 January 2010

this happens - news

ON THE OFFENSIVE: Writers and the duty to offend.

Last October I chaired a panel at the Screenwriters' Festival in Cheltenham. It was Called 'On the Offensive' and it was about whether comedy should be constrained by considerations of taste, decency and potential offence to other people's beliefs. On the panel with me were comedienne Francesca Martinez, Jane Berthoud (head of comedy at BBC Radio) and Secunder Kermani, a writer who's filmed some very challenging but very funny (I think) sketches and public provocations about religion. The event was very lively and really got people talking and thinking. This is a hot topic and getting hotter.

Here is part of a manifesto that I drew up before the event to spell out my own position and to kick the discussion off:

Wake up! We are sleepwalking into prison - a prison that we are building oursleves. As we give up our rights and liberties in exchange for the delusion of security, and the state fights a war on terror by terrorizing us, so we are betraying our cultural freedoms. Through our dumb fear of causing offence, our misguided attempts to honour other people's beliefs, and our grovelling willingness to police ourselves, we are locking ourselves up and handing the key to the very people from whose rage we cower; those who believe they have a right to tell us what we can and can't say and think.

The whole subject of free speech and censorship is more important today that it's been for years, as we can all see with each new instance of someone claiming to be outraged over what we as writers are producing. And it's not just writers; freedom of expression is something that affects everyone. The hot buttons of race, gender and religion have never been hotter, and religion is the big, red, boiling one. It's time for us to say what we think and where we stand.

Francesca Martinez and I did an interview on this subject: here's the link:

There will be more links, thoughts and comments about all this soon. Watch this space. (Okay, you can stop watching now; nothing's going to happen if you just sit there watching this space. I mean come back and check it out later.) Meanwhile, here are some questions to consider:

Which of the following is most morally reprehensible?

1. Someone swearing on TV before 9pm.
2. Two overexcited narcissists leaving a puerile voicemail message for an elderly actor, outraging thousands of people who never heard it.
3. Broadcasting a comedy that might offend someone's religious beliefs.
4. Agreeing not to broadcast it under pressure from people who claim they might be offended if the broadcast went ahead.
5. The salaries of certain broadcasters.


  1. Hi Paul

    I dragged myself out of bed to attend 'On The Offensive' @SWF and enjoyed it, and thought it was a very important debate and worthy of a more prominent placing in the schedule. Likewise it was a shame you were restricted with time as I felt things were starting to really warm up when you had to wrap up to make way for the dalek chasers.

    Hopefully that will change next time round and you'll get a bigger better slot to discuss the subject, plus maybe some extra money to buy some trousers that fit, or at least a belt.

    Good luck, and keep up the good fight.


  2. Thanks Jared, yes, we could have gone on all day. All year, in fact, and I think we might do. Francesca and I have some plans to keep the whole issue going. What's all that about my trousers? I didn't expose myself, did I? Free speech for trousers, I say; let them have a voice.