I am going to break my cardinal rule and offer comment on a legal case without having read the judgment or sentencing remarks. My excuse is that the case in question was a guilty plea at Dudley Magistrates’ Court, and my exhaustive research suggests that the District Judge has not followed the modern fashion of making his sentencing remarks publicly available. Therefore it is armed only with what I accept at the outset are (inevitably) incomplete media reports that I step up to bat for Paul Gascoigne.
Gazza yesterday, on the day of trial, pleaded guilty to what was widely reported as “racially aggravated threatening or abusive words or behaviour”, which I assume to be a reference to an offence contrary to section 31(1)(c) of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. This law provides for a racially aggravated version of the offence of using threatening or abusive words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to thereby be caused harassment, alarm or distress (section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986).
The facts, as reported, are that Gascoigne, while presenting “An Evening With Gazza” at a venue in Wolverhampton, said to a black security guard working at the show and standing in a dimly lit part of the auditorium, words to the effect of, “Can you smile please, because I can’t see you.” The audience were understandably unimpressed at this unwitting spontaneous tribute to Bernard Manning, and several walked out. The guard, for his part, felt sufficiently upset by what he perceived to be an attempt to humiliate him in front of a large audience to contact the police. A remorseful Gazza told the rozzers that he didn’t mean to upset the target of his quip, but it was too late – cue a decision to charge Wolverhampton’s newest failed comic under the legislation above, and, ultimately, his guilty plea, criminal conviction and sentence.
It is undeniable that what Gascoigne said was offensive. It is wholly understandable that his manifestly unfunny joke based on the race of the blameless security guard would have caused the man significant embarrassment (although, for context, the £1,000 compensation he was awarded by the court for his hurt feelings is the maximum that a victim of a moderate sexual assault could hope to receive from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority). One cannot ignore the cultural and historical context of such remarks, redolent of an era when marking the otherness of minority racial groups was not merely a source of ribaldry but a necessary precursor to normalised discrimination and violence. As the District Judge said in terms when passing sentence, Gascoigne’s comments – and the suggestion advanced on his behalf in mitigation that such bantz are standard fare in football dressing rooms – betray an attitude ill-fitting with the progressive 21st century.
But – but but but but – it is not a criminal offence to hold or display attitudes ill-fitting with the progressive 21st century. It is not a criminal offence to give offence. It is not a criminal offence to tell bad jokes. Even racist jokes. And the application of the law in this case causes me some concern. Not least as the Judge, if his comments have been reported accurately, appears to himself have misunderstood the scope of the legislation. “As a society, it is important that we challenge racially aggravated behaviour in all its forms,” he observed. Which as a meme, is fine. But as an authoritative statement of law is simply wrong. “All forms” of “racially aggravated behaviour” are not prohibited by law. By social codes and contemporary standards of decency, yes, but the particular sanction of the criminal law is reserved for contraventions of accepted norms that Parliament deems sufficiently serious for the state to mark through impinging upon individual liberty.
The legislation sets out the conduct that carries the unique stigma of a criminal conviction. An offence under section 5 of the POA 1986 is itself a dubiously-deployed law, often the tool of first resort of police officers faced with low level disorder, but even its broad scope is limited as follows. To commit an offence, a person has to do two things:
- Use threatening or abusive words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour
- Within the sight or hearing of someone likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress.
After much effort by free speech campaigners, this law was modified in 2014 so as to remove the reference to “insulting” words or behaviour. Insulting someone is no longer a crime. To trigger section 5, your words or behaviour must be abusive or threatening, or your conduct disorderly. On the available information, we can discount that Gascoigne’s words amounted to threats or “disorderly behaviour”. Which leaves us with abuse. It is ultimately a matter of fact for a court whether words are abusive, but given that there is an explicit distinction between abusive and insulting, the former must amount to more than the latter. You can insult someone without being abusive. You can offend someone without being abusive. You can be unpleasant, without being abusive. You can, as the legislation provides, threaten someone without being abusive. And you can display racist views, without being abusive. You can, for example, posit in a lecture theatre that a certain race is genetically inferior, and politely or jovially back this up with cod science and debunked theories off the internet, causing all manner of offence, without being abusive. I labour the point, but it is important, because as offensive, insulting, demeaning, humiliating and upsetting as Gascoigne’s off-the-cuff remark may have been, categorising it as “abusive” does not, in my mind, work. There are words for what this was, but “abuse” isn’t one of them. “Abuse” contemplates a measure of ill-will; or as Merriam-Webster has it:
“language that condemns or vilifies usually unjustly, intemperately, and angrily”.
It is difficult to see how this applies to the reported conduct. And this leads into a second issue arising from the legal definition of “racially aggravated”, as provided by section 29(1) CDA 1998. Prohibited conduct is “racially aggravated” if:
(a)at the time of committing the offence, or immediately before or after doing so, the offender demonstrates towards the victim of the offence hostility based on the victim’s membership (or presumed membership) of a racial […] group; or
(b)the offence is motivated (wholly or partly) by hostility towards members of a racial […] group based on their membership of that group.
In other words, there must be either objectively demonstrated hostility, or a subjective hostile motivation behind the offence. And again, I accept that something may have been lost in reporting or translation, but an offensive joke from a performer towards a person in an auditorium, based on race or otherwise, would not ordinarily be an automatic indicator of hostility. It can be, and much depends on delivery. But hostility is difficult to infer from what we have been told. Again, I emphasise, there is a distinction between expressing racist views and doing so with hostility. Both are socially unacceptable. Both are ripe for mockery, condemnation, shunning and re-educating. But only the latter brings the might of the state to bear upon an individual.
Gascoigne, by pleading guilty on the day of his trial, is deemed to have admitted that his conduct was both hostile and abusive, and he will no doubt have been fully and competently advised by his lawyers that he should not plead guilty unless he accepts those elements of the Crown’s case. But people do plead guilty for various reasons, not least the desire to avoid the stress or public exposure of a trial, notwithstanding whether the evidence truly supports the prosecution charge (and it is noted that his solicitor, when mitigating, still maintained that there was “no malice” behind the comments). Given that this is a man with a well-documented history of personal, medical and psychological difficulties, it is difficult not to wonder whether his vulnerabilities played a part in his decision not to mount a defence. At the very least, those vulnerabilities, and the apparent borderline criminality of his conduct, raise questions over whether the public interest was truly satisfied by dragging this damaged man through the criminal courts.