Joking apart…

When Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson ‘joked’ about strikers being shot in front of their families, intentionally or otherwise he also ested the limits of Britain’s sense of the comical. RACHEL ZAMMIT CUTAJAR explores the fine line between the serious and the flippant.

Earlier this year, comments that the Mexicans are lazy, feckless, flatulent and overweight sparked further controversy, with celebrities such as comedian Steve Coogan condemning Clarkson’s style as “uber-conservative” and unfunny.
Earlier this year, comments that the Mexicans are lazy, feckless, flatulent and overweight sparked further controversy, with celebrities such as comedian Steve Coogan condemning Clarkson’s style as “uber-conservative” and unfunny.

Jeremy Clarkson's comment on BBC's The One Show is on course to become the number one most complained about comment in television, with the number of complaints topping 31,000.

On the show, Clarkson cracked a joke saying that striking public sector workers should be "executed in front of their families."

This is not the first of Clarkson's controversial remarks, nor will it be the last. During his apology for this offensive remark he again insulted the British, describing people who commit suicide by throwing themselves under trains as "selfish" because of the considerable disruption they cause.

Earlier this year, comments that the Mexicans are lazy, feckless, flatulent and overweight sparked further controversy, with celebrities such as comedian Steve Coogan condemning Clarkson's style as "uber-conservative" and unfunny.

In an article in the Sun on 4 February 2011, Clarkson defended himself saying that his comments were merely jokes and that "what people don't realise is that without offence, there can be no jokes."

Far from apologising for offending, Clarkson ended with another joke at the expense of the Mexicans saying "Mexico doesn't have an Olympic team... because anyone who can run, jump or swim is already across the border."

A fine punchline

But at what point - if any - does humour cease to be humorous, and cross over into the realm of crime?

Local comedy writer, who is also a full-time writer and actor in the UK, Chris Dingli does not believe that jokes can incite hatred. "Humour and hatred are completely opposed to each other.  You can't have one and the other, just like you can't have an atmosphere in a vacuum.  I don't think this is an example of it. If you take into context Clarkson's usual style of humour, I think he was just trying to be funny and got it very wrong for a number of reasons."

Dingli's collaborator, Malcolm Galea, said that writers of the likes of Clarkson will be fully aware of the controversy a comment is going to cause and they go through with it anyway, the reason being is that it increases their popularity.

"How many more people have read that article as a result of the controversy he caused? People like him are fully aware of the repercussions of everything they say and they welcome them."

Galea writes comedy for a living and looks at writing from a business perspective.

"The question a writer needs to ask is how far is too far? If you are worried about offending then there is very little leeway and your opportunity for humour becomes very limited.

"From a personal perspective I don't think that anything is off limits. I don't think there are offensive jokes and non-offensive jokes, just funny ones or unfunny ones. However you do have to be a sensitive."

"There is a fine line between humour and tasteless jokes and writers attempt to get as close to that line as possible. However cross that line one too many times and you run the risk of estranging your audience."

Galea said that sensitivity is paramount particularly when writing for a Maltese audience because of the size of the country where everyone is related or knows someone who might be offended by a bad joke.

"In one of my performances I made fun of people with a stutter and the wife of the actor who played the part was a speech therapist. She got into some trouble as a result and though I felt bad for creating that animosity, it is difficult not to upset anyone."

Dingli echoed Galea's views on sensitivity toward the audience you are writing for. "There is a difference between my personal tastes in humour and my public style of humour. I personally don't believe anything is above humour, but that doesn't mean I adopt that approach in my performance.  It's just not my style to do so.  It's important to laugh at ourselves and not be miserable, but there are the appropriate platforms for this and appropriate ways of going about it.

Though Clarkson's comments were clearly intended to get a laugh from the audience, in serious discussion comments of that nature are not tolerated by the law. In 2008, far-right candidate, Norman Lowell, was given a jail sentence of two years, suspended for four years, for inciting racial hatred in a conference given in Safi where he said that illegal immigrants should be given three warnings before being fired upon, comments which are not too far from Clarkson's.

Simone Zammit Endrich was cleared of a racism accusation, following an article that appeared on 22 April 2002 in the Malta Independent. Zammit Endrich and then editor Steve Chetcuti were originally found guilty of exposing people to hatred, persecution or defamation due to their race, beliefs, sex, nationality or ethnicity.

However the ruling was overturned on appeal by Chief Justice Vincent Degaetano, who said that though the article was prejudiced the author had every right to express her point of view under the freedom of expression laws.

Two Maltese nationals of Arabic origin filed a criminal complaint against Zammit Endrich and Chetcuti over one paragraph in her article which stated:

"The typical Jew is clever, quick, perceptive, industrious, able in all economic or financial affairs, in short successful. On the flipside, the typical Arab is lazy and confined to religious idiosyncrasies, with violence and intolerance and the hub of his culture. Arabs loath the Israelites in very much the same manner as they harbour anti-American sentiments. They are the embodiment of all they would have liked to be."

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The last paragraph is not an insult, it's an observation.