by John Kersey
In 2010, he was flavour of the month as the Daily Mail reported the heroic £8,445.15 he raised from nearly a thousand donors worldwide to free Nick Hogan, the pub landlord jailed for refusing to pay a fine imposed for allowing customers to smoke in his pub.
Today, the same newspaper has run a hatchet job on award-winning libertarian blogger and satirist Old Holborn, unmasking him as Robert Ambridge from Braintree, Essex, and describing him as “one of Britain’s vilest Internet trolls”.
A broad-minded, indeed traditional conservative view of satire, would be that it is a necessary component within a healthy society; that there is always a need to question assumptions, to subject the powerful to scrutiny through satire as well as earnest discourse, to hold a mirror up to society and show us for what we really are.
Savage and offensive comment on those in public life has a long and distinguished history. Roman satire divides into two main schools named after their most distinguished exponents: the Horatian and the Juvenalian. Horatian satire is mild and dedicated to the exposure of folly – the style of most of BBC Radio Four’s satirical material. Juvenalian satire attacks what is perceived as evil through savage ridicule, sarcasm, scorn and invective that is less easily perceptible as pure humour. It is this tradition that was maintained by such as Gillray, whose cartoons spared their subjects few blushes. At times, the Juvenalian tradition has been maintained by various underground magazines, and by Private Eye, though today that organ seems less inclined to end up in the courts tussling with the likes of Goldsmith and Maxwell than was once the case. Nowadays, Juvenalian satire and the blogosphere have found themselves natural partners.
Today, in contrast to the satire boom of fifty years ago, there is no longer a secure establishment to lampoon. The modern political class is not the Alec Douglas-Home-style aristocracy, entrenched in centuries of tradition and permanence, but a creature of the middle classes with all the uncertainty and herd instinct that this implies. It bends to public opinion, to fashion, to focus groups and spin-doctors because its principal ideology is the gaining and maintaining of short-term power and money, rather than any more nebulous or lofty moral concept of politics. This makes it a difficult target for satirists.
The global shift of politics to the left, and the embrace by neoconservatives of the culture of the left, is a particular problem because most comedians and satirists are themselves of the left. They are forced either into a position of arguing that politicians are not left-wing enough, and espousing instead a form of utopian or populist socialism, or of turning away from politics for their material. Without the distinct characters of yesteryear, satirists are also faced with politicians who have limited recognition among the general public and few personally distinguishing features. There may be enough there to make the odd joke, but there is no longer enough there to fill an act or to be sure of laughter. And there is nothing remotely that would recapture the edginess and the danger that is satire’s lifeblood.
In this atmosphere, there will inevitably be some who will seek out a Juvenalian option. This alternative is to find whatever the modern establishment holds dear that has the reek of humbug and, once that soft underbelly is revealed, to wield the scalpel without fear or favour. This is a significantly bigger game than previously, because now what is being attacked is not merely politicians, but a much wider section of society itself; its mainstream media, its sacred cows, its common values, its morality and hypocrisy – indeed, the way we live now. The target is not simply those who are most prominent in the public eye, but others who, despite their media portrayal, may not perceive themselves in any way as being part of something that can be a legitimate subject for humour.
By nature, this is humour that can – indeed must – give offence. Because of this, the satirist who adopts the Juvenalian approach is ultimately playing with fire. It is this spirit that prompted Jyllands-Posten to publish cartoons criticizing Islam and Muhammed. It is this spirit that inspires Frankie Boyle’s more outrageous (and memorable) moments. And it is the same spirit that prompts Old Holborn. It is humour on a knife-edge, provocation taken to its limits, the tense anticipation of the verbal gladiator who has the plain courage to say to a baying crowd something he finds funny in the full knowledge that he will be lucky to escape unscathed from the aftermath.
In this battle of wits, the sledgehammer response of mere outrage cannot be sufficient, though it is the most frequent recourse for those who cannot match the satirist blow for blow. Most have not understood that they are participants in this particular game in the first place, let alone the rules of engagement. The Mail’s response certainly has nothing about it that inspires such confidence. Lazy clichés about Mr Ambridge’s “gap-toothed” appearance and supposed resemblance to Coronation Street‘s Roy Cropper, his “dilapidated” home and his “battered” Toyota speak of journalistic desperation rather than insight.
It is worth noting that Old Holborn’s stance throughout his vicissitudes has been both consistent and dignified. He has constantly advocated free speech without boundaries. He is entirely happy for others to insult him or return his style of humour in kind. And he is astonishingly persistent.
On Twitter, Old Holborn has recently directed his invective towards the people of Liverpool. In the words of m’learned colleague David Davis, “Whatever it is that’s bad that happens to Liverpool, or its people, or the fans and supporters of LFC, it’s NOT their fault, OK, geddit?” The victimhood of Liverpool has attracted further comment here in the past. It seems that Old Holborn passed a few comments on Liverpudlian sensibilities one day and found that the reaction exceeded all expectations. Had those who read his Twitter account simply ignored or dismissed his comments, doubtless he would have moved on. But expressions of outrage, particularly when they are the bogus manifestations of the politically correct, are exactly the fuel that Juvenalian satire needs. They indicate that the target believes that they are entitled to special treatment; that they are above being ridiculed, and that they feel justified in silencing anyone who would disrupt that cosy arrangement. They are, in other words, the plainest sign imaginable that the satirist has hit home; that, as so often with humour, what is funny is funny because it reveals the truth.
As of last month, Old Holborn was on his 29th Twitter account; not only this, but he had spoken with the head of Twitter UK and the police regarding death and rape threats sent to Old Holborn and his family by online opponents. While the Mail is happy to report that Old Holborn’s opponents have made a complaint to the police about him, they fail to point out the full facts. Old Holborn may have offended many, but he has not threatened anyone. Rather, it is Old Holborn and his family who have been threatened with explicit and sickening violence. Being offensive, shocking or disturbing is permitted within the guidelines issued to the CPS in respect of the Malicious Communications Act. Sending death threats most certainly is not.
“As an avid twitter commentator and satirist, I am regularly accused of being an abusive troll – mainly based on the fact that someone decides to take offense at something I’ve written and can’t be bothered to argue…
I receive death threats pretty much every day, as does my wife and family, employers, customers, the dog and anyone who knows me. We’ve all watched flame wars break out since the very first Compuserve account was launched – we all know there are idiots out there and we all know that making death threats is already illegal, so why the big fuss?
If we decide that Twitter is only for posting pictures of kittens and for celebrities to flog us more tat, we will have ruined one of the only free speech platforms we are still allowed to use. Yes, it can be ugly, like a loud row in a pub or fantastic as a method to interact socially and spread news and information and already has enough mechanisms built in to block abusive users or those who do not sing from your hymn sheet – anything further is simply a matter for the Police. Twitter is not a human right, free speech is.
Whilst Caitlin Moran struts around deciding what the rest of us can say on a free medium, Governments are itching to slap another level of moderation on what we can and cannot say to each other. Do we really want celebrities, backed up by arse licking Politicians to be the arbiters of free speech? Abusive, offensive, shocking and rude tweets are all perfectly legal. Death threats are not.
Offence isn’t given, it’s taken. Everyone has the right to be offended, but by the same token everyone has the right to offend. After all it is only words on a screen.
Free speech is either free or it isn’t. You can’t say “I believe in free speech but…” It just doesn’t work that way.
If the publicity given to Old Holborn – both today and on Thursday night’s Tonight programme on ITV (he persuaded ITV to send a limousine to collect him for the interview) – gets that message across more clearly, it will be more than welcome. He adds, “On Friday, I think the media will know what trolling actually is as I relax on a Greek beach. See how it works yet?”