Don't mention the war (or the offside rule)!
Padraig Reidy: Don't mention the war (or the offside rule)!
24 Jan 11

What do Jon Gaunt and Stephen Fry have in common?

At first glance, nothing. But both have got in trouble for utterly innocuous references to World War II.

The BBC has apologised to the Japanese Embassy after a joke on Fry’s QI show about Tsutomu Yamaguchi, a Japanese man who managed to be a victim of both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings (he survived both). Fry quipped that Yamaguchi was the unluckiest man on Earth. The Japanese Embassy in London wrote to the BBC, pointing out that they felt the joke was in poor taste. The BBC duly said sorry.

Meanwhile, radio phone-in host Jon Gaunt has won the right to appeal a court decision against him after he was dismissed for calling a councillor a “health Nazi” on air. Gaunt lost his original case for unfair dismissal after a court found his comment to be “offensive and abusive”, with “no factual content or justification”.

Normally, I’d say that it’s important that people have the right to be offensive. But there’s something about these stories that I find baffling: I just don’t think either of these comments are actually that offensive. I don’t think Fry’s case warrants a complaint from Japanese diplomats, and I really don’t think that Gaunt’s comment warranted a dismissal.

Yamaguchi was pretty unlucky, wasn’t he? And the councillor on Gaunt’s show was being a bit of a health Nazi in saying that smokers shouldn’t be allowed to adopt children.

Have the events of World War II now become so hallowed that we can’t even loosely base any joke or barb on them?

Meanwhile, in stuff-that-is-a-bit-offensive news, Sky Sports football presenters Andy Gray and Richard Keys have been suspended from duty (for one night, admittedly), after some off-colour comments about a female linesman and the offside rule. The two men were caught off guard commenting on Sian Massey’s decision to allow play to continue in the build up to Liverpool’s first goal in their game against Wolves yesterday, trotting out that pub dullard convention about women not understanding the offside rule. Gray and Keys have apologised to Massey, and TV replays have shown she was right in her decision. Which suggests at least one woman understands the offside rule better than Andy Gray.

By Padraig Reidy

Padraig Reidy is the editor of Little Atoms and a columnist for Index on Censorship. He has also written for The Observer, The Guardian, and The Irish Times.