Do we want humourless, inoffensive MPs?

January 16, 2012 3:08 pm

Today there’s understandable anger that Tom Harris has been forced to resign from his role as a “Social Media Tsar” (a role he’s held for less than a month) over his production of a spoof Downfall video.

It’s possible that some of you won’t have seen a Downfall spoof before, although that’s unlikely I’d have thought, as they’re some of the most widespread and over-used parodies on the internet – especially in politics. If anything Harris was guilty of making a kind of spoof that’s a bit passe these days. So passe in fact that the Telegraph website (not a blog, a tweet, or a facebook page, but the website of a mainstream broadsheet national newspaper) printed “Hitler Downfall parodies: 25 worth watching”, and described it as “one of the web’s most enduring memes”, almost two and a half years ago. I must have missed the outrage back then…I’ve certainly never seen any real complaints about them before – even some of the particularly brutal ones produced about Gordon Brown.

What this seems worryingly symptomatic of is the desire of the media (and some politicians themselves) to produce grey, humourless, inoffensive MPs. The kind who never take any risks, but by being risk averse never say anything of note. I may not agree with Tom all of the time – that’s an understatement – but he’s engaging, smart and provocative. I wouldn’t want that to change.

Right now – perhaps for the first time – we’re starting to get a glimpse of what politicians are really like, thanks to social media. There are so often complaints about MPs not “getting” the online world, and not engaging people on their terms – and now Tom Harris has engaged with the blogosphere and Twitter on its own terms, using its own language and style, and he’s lambasted for it.

We’re at risk of pushing politicians away from open dialogue, and away from being “real” in how they interact online. That would be a travesty. But it’s no surprise to see the mainstream media reacting in horror to it – after all, it’s something they can’t control, anof don’t really understand.

At worst, Harris was guilty of bad timing. By posting the video when he did, he has allowed the SNP to shift coverage away from Joan McAlpine’s “anti-Scottish” attack on Labour supporters, and others. It’s a travesty that time will be wasted covering Tom’s video, rather than the actual matter at hand.

But was it offensive? I really don’t think so. No more so than the thousands of other such videos posted online. I’ve embedded it below – so you can make your own mind up:

  • Paul Halsall

    This is a quite ludicrous story. 

    I am not always a fan of Tom’s politics, but he is clearly a good fellow.

    The only problem with the Downfall spoof was that it was not that funny outside the bottom end of Royal Mile.

    • Anonymous

      Unless you have a tattoo on your arm, just no need for it little wonder labour is struggling maybe it is time for a long long rest.

  • Jennie Kermode

    I’m all for MPs with a sense of humour. But would I employ as new media advisor a man with a track record of offending people? No. Because that job is about the party’s image, not the individual’s image. The stakes are a lot higher, the audience is different, and there isn’t the same sense of personal connection that may incline an audience to be indulgent.

    I’m not outraged by Harris’ behaviour, now or otherwise. But I am disappointed that Labour would be this careless with its public image.

  • Daniel Speight

    Isn’t he a bit of a serial offender Mark? Looking at the leadership election results he isn’t too well liked up there either.

    • Mike Homfray

      Indeed – he’s hardly a popular MP who is liked across the party lines

  • M Cannon

    I’m sure that the sins of Aiden Burley MP were far greater, but presumably he and his dumb chums thought they were just having a laugh.  This site managed several pieces drawing attention to Mr Burley’s subsequent discomfiture.

    Now it is the turn of Tom Harris MP, whose main sin is, as observed below, to re-cycle a rather tired format and to do so not very well.

    However, there is such a thing as maintaining the decency of debate between politicians.  For example, I suspect that it was one thing for Spitting Image to show Mrs Thatcher dressed in SS uniform (as it frequently did), but that it would have been another for a Labour MP to attack her as a Nazi.  The same may be true for “Downfall” parodies.

    But it is more a matter of taste and not something to get excited about.

  • Anonymous

    Over the weekend there was a heated duologue on LL itself because one poster had apparently referred to another as having Nazi sympathies. Threats of legal actions etc. Obviously it is not polite or sensible to refer to somebody as a Nazi, unless they are a self-confessed Neo-Nazi (the originals have long since gone), but I personally felt that the poster offended was being a bit thin-skinned and suggested to him respectfully that if he was of a sensitive nature it might not be a good idea to post on a public forum.

    That said a man in Harris’s position should be a little more circumspect. We don’t want humourless politicians, but there is humour and humour. I think Nazi parodies are not especially inventive, something more  enduring. After the ratbags who have been crawling out of the woodwork in recent weeks, Ed Miliband could well be forgiven for doing  Kenneth Williams line from “Carry on Cleo” :’ infamy!, infamy! – they’ve all got it in for me!’.

    Perhaps I am not the best one to speak of this: the truth is I have never liked the cut of Tom Harris’ jib.

  • Anonymous

    I like Tom Harris. I may not agree with him.. but that is a different matter.

    But I would have thought the fate of a series of MPs with Nazi themes – and common decency towards a country now an ally rather than an enemy.. would have precluded Nazi allusions.

    I thought Tom Harris was full of common sense.. obviously I was wrong and a bad judge of character.

    • derek

       obviously I was wrong and a bad judge of character” Whey Hey! I’ll take that, dam Humour.

  • Spammo Twatbury

    The video wasn’t “offensive”, except in being such a lame, outdated thing to do. The SNP, as far as I know, haven’t pretended to be offended – they just dismissed it as “silly and negative”. The point, though, is that Harris is a troll who constantly cries “offensive” himself – indeed, just minutes before posting the video he’d castigated a “cybernat” for making a reference to the Vichy government. He’s also been exposed for lying on his Twitter feed.

    His hypocrisy, and in particular how blatant and clumsy it is, is what’s got him in trouble, not the Downfall spoof. Labour didn’t fire Diane Abbott for saying something that actually WAS offensive and racist, there’s no way they’d have given Harris the boot if they didn’t know that he was a liability in a broader sense too.

    • John Ruddy

      The SNP havnt pretended to be offended. The SNPs supporters certainly have.

      • Spammo Twatbury

        So what? My point is that Harris wasn’t sacked over offensiveness (or Abbott would be gone too), he was sacked because he was an idiot and a liability. And you can’t blame the SNP (or even their supporters) for that.

        • Kernow Castellan

          Nor was he sacked over anti-semitism, or Paul Flynn would have gone.

          The lesson must be – you can make anti-semitic or racist comments, but don’t vote for David Milibandembarass the party.

          • ryan_thomas

            Paul Flynn also supported David Miliband.

          • Mike Homfray

            In fact Paul Flynn was one of a very few MP’s who placed Ed fifth!

        • Anonymous

          He was sacked for dragging Labour down to a new low, or as they say he stepped down of his own accord, but he was seen at one time as a possibly leader of labour, now basically it’s over for at least ten or twelve years. And to be honest at a time Scotland’s  labour party is  on the rock bottom, the SNP could not ask for better help from labour. 

  • John Ruddy

    I think you can now see the fake outrage that many nationalist supporters show whenever there is any criticism of them, or their leader.
    My problem with Tom isnt so much that he did this, although its maybe not as funny as it might appear, but rather that I would expect Tom to know better – that he should have realised that the cybernats would kick up such a stink about this, that it would cause harm

    • Anonymous

      I sure some of the Jewish families and some of the people who lost loved one in both England and Scotland will find it Hilarious, but as i said before if this is the understanding and the ability of our top politicians god help us.

      • Anonymous

        Maybe we should refrain from taking offence on other peoples behalf.

        You should read this, it’s a balanced take on them from one of the people you’re speaking for:

        • Anonymous

          I speak for my self mate having to put up with the parody of a labour party who related disability to  scroungers and work shy. I now remember why I walked away from this bunch of school boys who have nothing else to do all day but play with video

    • Franwhi

      It wasn’t the so-called cyber nats who sacked him but his own party and himself who came to the decision he should stand down. So he knows it’s offensive – and arguably IMO  not that humorous either. So what’s the point ? He tweets he done it on a wet Sat afternoon without the kids . Those kids got off lightly !  Obviously got too much time on his hands. Typical man when faced with the choice take the kids to the park or mess about on your laptop.  
       I think we’re all guilty of fake outrage when it suits and to be fair the SNP responded with a comment which did not express outrage but rather disdain which is quite  different. Here’s the official SNP response from the Scotsman newspaper so you can judge the tone for yourself :
      “It is silly, negative nonsense like this that helps explain why Labour are in the doldrums in Scotland”
      I’m not getting outrage – fake or otherwise- from that remark. It’s more headmaster than headliner – sounds like he’s about to get a punishment exercise.    

      • John Ruddy

        Like I said, the SNP didnt pretend to be offended. Their supporters, however were a different matter. Because of the storm of protests, it was felt that this would prove a distraction.

  • Anonymous

    The problem is of course many a true word is said in jest, one mans funny, is another mans tears and with Hitler killing maybe 3 million disabled people, god knows how many Jewish people, not to long ago we had a long drawn out discussion on another Labour party site about, should disabled children should be aborted as the country could not afford to keep on having them. MY wife was born Spina Bifida and she worked a full working life, she was lucky to have a really good employer who was a great friend of Nye Bevan.

    I do not think association of Hitler to anyone is funny and I’m bloody sad that anyone today finds him to have anything which we could laugh at.

    he and his tribe of killers raped murdered and killed and if  people cannot understand this, boy has labour slipped down.

    Hitler murdered raped killed and cut up children alive, the association of somebody in Scotland is even joking is not funny.

    then again it’s labour that associated disability and illness with scroungers and work shy, so as I said many a true word is said in jest.

    • Anonymous

      So you find the parody of Hitler offensive? Are you also against “The Great Dictator” (heres a taster  a film starring and created by possibly the greatest socialist film makers to have ever lived, or Dr Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick’s greatest comedy, even Walt Disney had a go at Hitler. Granted Tom Harris’ work lacks any artistic merit, but it should be noted that these kinds of parodies have existed for a damn long time and maybe you should be having a go at Chaplin and his film which contains these two speeches in the same film  (definitely watch the second one). I personally don’t want MPs to be man machines .

  • Plato

    I LOL at it – thought it was spot on – the Nits need to get a thicker skin and SLAB a spine.

    I don’t know anyone who’s been genuinely offended by a parody video with the notable exception of Sion Simon’s effort where he invited people to sleep with David Cameron’s wife.  I can see how that crossed the line on any number of levels.

    • Anonymous

      So why use a Nazi silly video that has been laying about on you tube for ages, £65,000 a year for what playing silly games’

      • Anonymous

        Any proof he did this while on the job?

  • Chris ‘thegoth’ Wilcox

    Gods that’s a crap parody.  No wonder they sacked him.

  • Mike Homfray

    There certainly seems to be a lack of characters and MP’s who people warm to. On our side, there’s no one to match Mo Mowlam, and whilst I disagree with everything she stands for, Ann Widdecombe came over as a character. Robert Marshall-Andrews , Lembit Opik, Clare Short…

    But I can’t be doing with Tom Harris.

    • derek

      Yep! Henry McLeish, Jack McConnell, Wendy Alexander, Iain Gray and the supposedly big gun from Westminster Tom Harris, gone like the wind and what does SLAB do? backs a campaign with the Tories against greater powers.

      • Spammo Twatbury

        …the Tories who Labour were claiming had an “anti-Scottish agenda” as recently as 2010…

  • Anonymous

    100% agree Mark, well said.

  • Politique

    Mark, Is it not double standards that Dianne Abbot was not forced to resign for entering into dialogue with words that were even more offensive.

    Is this not double standards Mr Miliband. Dianne Abbott is still in post and she should have resigned.

    This is why peole don’t trust your decision making or oversight. This is symptomatic of why the millions of citizens in Britain din’t trust Labour

  • Matthew Blott

    Agree with this 100 per cent but can we have some consistency – i.e. the next time Cameron or someone makes a crass joke about Tourettes (something Mehdi Hasan also did regarding Melanie Phillips by the way) or something similar can we stop the pretend outrage, accept the apology and move on.

  • Zak

    Maybe you can get Russell Brand to replace him.

  • Anonymous

    I cannot believe it, we had a Tory dressing up or ordering Nazi Uniforms, Labour  demands he is sacked, Then Abbott comes out with a stupid comment the Tory demand the sacking, then the leader makes an error rushing to show he is up and with it on twitter, then Harris sits around all day doing tasteless video of again Nazis.

    I have a feeling Bozier may well  have known something that Labour has lost it’s way, we are to believe that this Labour party is ready to ruin this country again. sorry no your not, people are struggling to live, the cuts are serious, and the way your going to win back a country you need to win the next election is insulting them.

    I know why the SNP are not moaning, they  must be laughing their heads off at the stupendous stupidity  of a labour government who  have nothing else to do but insult people with stupid childish video

    I bet to night the Tories must be in hysterics.

  • Anonymous

    I just think this was foolish, but a “warning” would have sufficed.

    I’ve seen this video posted before; is it from a film?
    On that occasion, it was comments added about the LD’s?

    Seems to be in the tradition of political satire;
    although probably very unpleasant to be on the receiving end
    in public!

    I think it reflects the culture of politics these days-
    sort of anything goes- but I personally don’t like
    mockery at someone else’s expense.

    I can see the funny side it has to be said-
    but it’s pushing things to the limit;
    and let’s face it- Labour needs to win over
    some public support at the moment, not hand
    opportunities over to opposition forces!

    Agree, don’t want humourless politicians Mark,
    and I like people with a bit of spirit and character,
    but not seeking to offend or provoke, if that was even the case.

    I suppose it’s the difference between laughing with people
    rather than at them….


  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous

    Offensive? Not terribly. Stupid? Oh yes! Hugely! When I was living in the United States I occasionally heard black Americans call each other “nigger”. Colloquially when one black person, almost always male, used that word in reference to another black person, e.g., “Hey nigger” in context, it was pretty much equivalent to white people using the word “man” in the same sense, e.g., “Hey man”, and in that context use of the word “nigger” was permissible. However, were a white person to call any black person a “nigger” the word in that context would be highly insulting and the white person would justifiably be castigated for making a racial slur.

    If Ricky Gervais or Christopher Morris had comically re-subtitled the Downfall clip perhaps it might have been funny as part of a comedy show in context. However when a Member of Parliament – who ought to know better given past history – stupidly does the same thing in order to obliquely attack some political rival and post it on YouTube it shows, candidly, that he’s a bloody fool to be honest.

  • Anonymous

    It’s not double standards, as far as I’m concerned, because I think Abbott did something wrong, but I don’t think Harris did.

    Both were right to have apologised, but neither should have resigned IMHO.

    • Spammo Twatbury

      Hang on – if you haven’t done anything wrong, why is it right to apologise?

  • Anonymous

    The problem with Harris’ Downfall parody was that unlike most of the others – it wasn’t funny.

    Do we want humourless, inoffensive MPs?


    Do we want a pompous, humourless Blairite Dalek like Tom Harris as an MP?

    Like we need leprosy.


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