I’ve seldom seen my friend Dave so distressed.
Last night we stopped at his local gastropub for our usual pint and some pork scratchings. Well, not exactly, to be honest.
Just as the landlord was pulling our Stellas, Dave told him no scratchings, we’ll have onion crisps instead. “Can’t be seen eating pork, old boy,” whispered Dave. “Can’t offend the Muslims, can we now?”
When we settled at our usual corner table, Dave gulped his pint down before I even tasted mine. “Sorry, old boy,” he said, “Too much on my mind, that bloody press is getting right up my nose. Your shout, and you better get me three of these, spare you another walk to the bar.”
Another minute or so, and Dave had poured enough Stella down his neck to pour his heart out. He knew that mine was a sympathetic ear and, what’s more, he could count on my discretion.
“I say,” he said. “I’m the good guy here. I know it, you know it, how come those bloody hacks don’t know it?”
“Can’t imagine, Dave,” I said. “I suppose they’ve been spoiled. I mean, for 300 years they’ve been able to publish their stuff without the government’s licence and now…”
“Hey, whose side are you on, you bloody nincompoop?” Dave turned puce and poured his second pint down his throat practically without swallowing.
“Yours, Dave, always,” I hastened to reassure him. “I’m just playing devil’s advocate, that’s all.”
“Well, bugger me… Forget I said that. Don’t want to offend Peter bloody Tatchell, do we now? I mean, how much freedom do those hacks want? Freedom to offend anyone they like, like the Muslims or Peter bloody Tatchell? That’s not on, not while I’m around…”
“Playing devil’s advocate again, Dave,” I said, “they say it’s hard to define offence. I mean, someone can be upset about anything anyone says. Where do we draw the line? We don’t know, they say. So it’s best not to draw it at all. Leave it to their judgment. Just like over the last three centuries.”
“What are on about, you idiot?” Dave was struggling to contain his unreserved admiration of yours truly.
“What do you mean hard to define offence? Don’t you bloody well know how it works? Say a mullah or Peter bloody Tatchell reads something he doesn’t like. So he calls the paper, the police, the PC bloody C and says he’s offended.
“If it’s bad enough, it lands on my desk. I tell my men to call the editor and tell him to grovel on Page One and then keep his gob shut in the future if he doesn’t want to see a lawsuit from hell, or perhaps a criminal charge. That’s the definition of offence. What’s there not to understand?”
“You’re right, Dave, as always,” I hastened to plug the breach. “But the hacks are saying this means you decide what they can or can’t say. ‘Egregious infringement of press freedom’ is how they put it.”
“Oh they do, do they? Let me tell you, they don’t know what egregious means. I could show them egregious! They don’t want to comply with the Royal Charter? They want to play independent? I’ll show the bastards egregious…”
“Dave, can you stand a bit of avuncular advice?” I asked. “Don’t use words like comply or compliant. It’s like a red rag to a bull. I mean, independent press is a stupid, outdated tradition, we both know that. But you can’t let on that this is what you really think. So don’t say compliant. Reasonable is a much better word, or maybe sensible…”
“Is it now?” Dave finished his third pint so fast an ounce of Stella ended up on his shirt front. “I can tell you what’s reasonable, you moron. It’s for the bloody hacks to shut their gobs and go along with me. If they don’t, you know what Ed’s going to do to them when he takes over?”
“Take it easy, Dave,” I said. “You’re getting red in the face again. To answer your question, no I don’t.”
“Well, I’ll tell you, you oligophrenic retard. They say one word to upset Peter bloody Tatchell or the TU bloody C and Ed will put them out of business. He’ll fine them bloody billions!”
“Perhaps arrest them as well?” I thought I was joking.
“Think you’re joking? Too bloody right he’ll clap them in the pokey. All I’m asking is like a few rashers of bacon. Ed will want the whole hog. Hell, forget I said that. Don’t want to upset the Muslims, do we now?”
Suddenly Dave looked deflated. He finished his fourth pint slowly, almost pensively, and asked me to fetch two more.
When I got back to the table, he felt relaxed – or chillaxed, as he puts it. “I say,” he said. “Aren’t Aston Villa doing great?”
“Don’t you read the papers, Dave?” I asked. “They lost again last night.”
“Oh, for f***’s sake, don’t talk to me about the bloody papers…” Dave was getting agitated again. It was time to pour him into his limo and go home.