Today in the House of Commons Alan Duncan, Shadow Leader of the House, called for a debate on moral authority. This comes in light of Carol Thatcher’s sacking from The One Show for calling a tennis player a golliwog, and the Jonathan Ross / Russell Brand / Andrew Sachs affair.
Mr Duncan said:
"May we also perhaps have a debate on moral authority, so that this House can help to establish a code of modern manners for privacy, humour and comment, which can be practised and agreed by everyone, in place of the current chaos, which provokes animosity and condemnation when it all could be so much better handled?"
I expect that some readers will accuse Mr Duncan of nanny statism, or censorship, or failing to mind his own business. However, a debate on this issue is a good idea. People in the public eye often lose their job for saying something controversial while others get off scot-free.
Often there is a post-hoc widespread sense that there has been an over-reaction. But in the case of Jonathan Ross, many people feel that his behaviour was outrageous and that he is jolly lucky to have kept his fantastically well-paid job. This lack of consistency can be frustrating, especially when a friend has been harshly treated.
So it could be a good idea to talk about what is hurtful and intolerably offensive and what is fair game. The trickier area is Mr Duncan’s talk of a code "agreed by everyone". This of course will not happen. There will never be unanimity on what level of mockery can be levelled at religion, for example. And debate will always rage about what is and what isn’t racist.
But we should not flap about what Mr Duncan said this afternoon. He is a freedom-loving guy (and has a wicked sense of humour), and I don’t think he will want to impose severe restrictions on speech.
So a debate is a good idea and we’ll have to wait and see what is meant by an agreed code.
Perhaps I can offer some useful advice. I am a stand-up comedian, and I enjoy talking about controversial subjects and creating a frisson in the room. I can’t guarantee that no-one will take offence. Sometimes I want people to take offence.
However, I wouldn’t dream of having material that I felt I could only do if there wasn’t, say, a black person in the room. Once you’re making those kind of calculations, you’re probably being unacceptably offensive and plain hateful. I often make jokes about race, but never racist jokes.
Likewise friends of mine will make clear their atheism when they’re doing stand-up, and I don’t believe they would rein it in for fear that a Christian might get upset – because they are bullish but not unkind in their humour.
If we substitute the term "common decency" for "political correctness", we may make the sort of progress that Mr Duncan wants.