SPARE a thought for that hitherto blameless national treasure who suddenly finds himself on the wrong side of the law. Pause to consider the feelings of that vulpine entertainer who recently found himself the object of police enquiries after allegations of racism that would wipe the smile off the face of all but the hardest of hatemongers. I refer, you may have guessed, to the wisecracking glove-puppet Basil Brush, who had his collar felt by the Northamptonshire Police. They were investigating claims by the Gipsy community that “an incident of a racist nature” may have occurred.
The alleged misdemeanour (perpetrated some six years ago, but shown last month in a BBC digital-TV repeat) involved an encounter between Basil and a mysterious “Dame Rosie Fortune”, who offered to sell him some pegs and a sprig of lucky heather.
She then ventured to read his future in her crystal ball, but was cut short by the furry fellow’s protestations that, no thanks, he’d been had before — prompting a comment from an outraged Joseph Jones, a spokesman for the Southern England Romany Gipsy and Irish Traveller Network: “This sort of thing happens quite regularly.”
Leaving aside the possibility that, if such encounters are routine, Northamptonshire must be a stranger place than many of us imagined, the story raises niggling questions. Were the county’s finest so understretched, for example, that they should have been dispatched in hot pursuit of a toy? Against a background of far more serious hate-crimes involving knives, fists, and broken bottles, were the police really after “soft” targets that would offer little resistance, but would look impressive when the crime statistics were published?
No one, of course, is advocating the practice of giving gratuitous offence to anyone, but to say that an old gag should be treated as a criminal offence worthy of the full might of the law shows, at the very least, a lack of proportion. And one notes that Mr Jones has so far been slow to report to the authorities those Travellers who are apparently flouting planning regulations in neighbouring Warwickshire by transforming three acres of pasture into residential hard standing over the Easter weekend. But that is another story.
The real story is that there is no shortage of genuine hatred on the streets today. Think of the Anglican priest in east London, abused and attacked on the grounds that he was in charge of a Christian church rather than a Muslim mosque. Think of the altercation that led a Liverpool cyclist to be chased and stabbed to death by two women.
Claiming parity of intention between a glove puppet and a thug detracts from the seriousness of genuine crimes of hatred, and undermines confidence in the police service. The charge of “Haven’t the police got better things to do?” was surely never more appropriate.
But the kerfuffle also raises the more troubling suspicion that we might be in the grip of some self-imposed hysteria that sees racial and religious hatred in the most innocent of remarks. Framing a catch-all law to govern what we say is notoriously difficult, but the genuine hate-crime, although hard to define, is easier to recognise.
If we are too quick to police the nation’s speech, we might soon find that it is but a short step to policing its thoughts.
As for Basil’s brush with the law, the BBC has agreed not to show the offending episode again, choosing to forgo the defence that this remark was what used technically to be called “a joke”.
For his part, Basil has remained commendably tight-lipped, perhaps gloomily concluding that this is no country for old foxes, or, to put it another way, that he may be just a bit long in the tooth. Boom boom!