The most recent broadcast of John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” on HBO opened by addressing the death of Queen Elizabeth II — or as Oliver, who is a British/U.S. dual citizen, described it, “the shocking death of a 96-year-old woman from natural causes.”
Oliver, as part of his long-running exasperated shtick, proceeded to crack a few jokes about tributes to the Queen — no shocker as he’s made fun of her before. But is it in poor taste when she’s just died? And is that censor-worthy?
Sky News broadcasters seemed to think so — at least on air in the U.K. The Comcast-owned news behemoth removed the segment from their telecast of the episode in the U.K. But social media is borderless, and Oliver’s three-minute commentary still circulated overseas.
“The jokes didn’t break any law in the U.K.,” said Mark Stephens, a partner at the London-based law firm Howard Kennedy, and who specializes in freedom of expression. It did, however, break the code of good taste, he said — and there is technically a precedent for the segment’s removal on those grounds.
“There is a curious rule which only applies to television, which can hold a TV company responsible for [anything shown] in bad taste,” Stephens said. “So, making a joke about the queen’s death? Oh, it could be seen by an overzealous lawyer to have been in bad taste.”
The queen’s passing has continuously tested what is considered “bad taste” over this past week — and promises to continue, with the official 10-day mourning period at the halfway mark.
The right to free expression is a little vague in the U.K.
The U.K. does not have a fundamental right to free speech — nothing equivalent to the U.S. First Amendment, anyway, Stephens said. Their freedom of expression is “guaranteed by our unwritten constitution,” he said, and the country does adhere to freedom of expression granted in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
But over the past few days, British police have arrested several peaceful protesters, most of whom fall into two camps: those who are against the “hereditary nature of the monarch” in favor of an elected leader, and those who are offended by Prince Andrew’s presence at many of the official gatherings. The prince is oft criticized for his past association with Jeffrey Epstein, the late financier charged with sex trafficking.
In London’s Parliament Square, as royal processions were being held, a woman holding up a sign that read “Not my King” was taken into custody for disorderly behavior, as was a man who was heard shouting, “Who elected him?” In Edinburgh, Scotland, a man heckling Prince Andrew during the queen’s funeral was also led away by police.
But with vague grounds of free expression, the greater discussion has evolved into one of timing and manners.
“There’s a lot of people who are saying [protests] are inappropriate in a period of mourning, when we’re reflecting on the queen’s service,” Stephens said. “And that’s fine and true. But the law has never punished people for bad manners.”
That seems to be changing in this historic moment.
In England, section 5 of the Public Order Act finds one guilty of public offence if they are deemed “within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby,” and are subject to a fine no larger than £1,000.
There’s a generational divide on where the line is between bad manners and public disorder in this case, Stephens said. Those born before 1952, the year Queen Elizabeth II ascended to the throne, “have felt a significant personal loss with the queen’s death, which most of us didn’t expect.” The younger generation has less of a connection to the monarchy and comprise much of the population that has been more flippant about her passing.
Stephens mentioned the joke making the rounds on Twitter (used mainly by younger adults and teens) as an example of differences in what people believe can and can’t be joked about, the punchline of which is: Prince Andrew was chosen to care for the queen’s corgis, because he’s always been the royal family’s “best groomer.”
Criticizing politicians is a national pastime and certainly nothing new
Stephens, who is 65, admits that while the timing may be disrespectful, everyone should be entitled to say what they’d like about the monarchy. He also points out the clear distinction between criticizing British royals and politicians — the latter have always been, and will continue to remain, fair game. The importance of manners is specific to the monarchy, not criticizing leaders in the U.K. generally, he said.
For example, during Oliver’s censored segment about the queen, he referred to recently sworn-in Prime Minister Liz Truss as “Margaret Thatcher if she were high on glue.” This was surely not the comment, Stephens said, that caused the TV network to block the segment.
Earlier this week, a member of the London Metropolitan Police affirmed in a statement that people have a right to legitimately protest. But the police’s actions, Stephens said, seem to contradict this message — that peaceful protestors who offend those mourning the queen are subject to discipline.
“Peaceful protests very often will shock, offend, disturb, and otherwise upset — part of living in a democracy is that you put up with that kind of thing, even if it’s bad manners, because that’s their right to protest,” Stephens said. “They are entitled to have bad manners.”
Thanks to Dave Tepps for copy editing this article.