Iain Murray: No sexual jokes please, we’re Europeans you know

Is nothing immune from EU interference? It would seem not, judging from a directive banning sexual jokes at work. But when is a joke, a joke? ponders Iain Murray

From those folks who brought you the wine lake, the butter mountain and, most recently, the used-refrigerator Alpine range comes welcome proof that they can, after all, handle unwanted surpluses.

The European Union has spotted an unhealthy, possibly toxic, glut of sexual jokes and has dealt with the problem in the way it knows best: in other words, issued a directive.

The edict, agreed by the European Parliament and the EU Council, expands the definition of illegal discrimination to include all forms of sexual harassment at work including the sexual joke. Knowing the thoroughness with which the commission approaches its duties, this would at first seem to imply that it has narrowed down the problem to one specific, harmonised joke, perhaps the one about the three stockbrokers and the lady contortionist. On closer examination, however, this appears not to be the case. All gags of a risqué nature are to be banned. Moreover, the new law shifts the burden of proof against employers by compelling them to prove that they have created a sexual joke-free workplace.

It also makes the European Court, not the House of Lords, the final court of appeal. So we face the prospect of three robed and eminent European practitioners of jurisprudence sitting in solemn judgment to determine whether a joke is in fact a joke or perhaps something else, such as an implausible story of the kind that Max Clifford brokers.

There is bound to be some concern about the prospect of a German judge assessing the native English joke. As for the French, they have long applied an illegal ban on the importation of Anglo-Saxon jokes on the spurious ground that they might be contaminated with a form of madness, so we are unlikely to get a fair hearing from that quarter.

We shall have to wait to see how the new directive works in practice, but a hypothetical case illustrates the problems that may lie ahead. Let us assume that an English company stands accused of allowing the following to be related in the proximity of its water cooler.

“A man was walking down a country lane with a bucket balanced on his head, a pig under one arm and a chicken under the other, when he realised that he had lost his way. Coming upon Flora, a pretty young country wench, he asked her the way to the market.

“‘Well,'” said Flora. ‘I’m a-going that very way myself, sir. But I dursen’t walk along with you, for you might take advantage of me.’

“Taken aback, the young man replied, ‘And how the devil could I do that, seeing as I have a bucket balanced on me head, a pig under one arm and a chicken under the other?’

“‘Well,'” said Flora softly. ‘If you put the chicken in the bucket, I could always hold the pig for you.'”

Several difficulties arise immediately. First the European swine flesh transportation directive specifically outlaws the carrying of pigs under the arm or indeed by any means other than on trucks whose tyre pressures conform to EU regulatory specifications.

Secondly, while it is permissible under the Common Agricultural Policy to carry a chicken under the arm, provided it has been corn-fed and weighs not less than 1.56 kilos, it is not acceptable so to do while simultaneously balancing a bucket of an ungalvanised nature on one’s head.

Under the circumstances, the court is likely to rule that Flora acted perfectly correctly in offering to take hold of the pig, and responsibly in suggesting a that the chicken should be placed within the safe confines of the bucket. Case dismissed. One of the problems in assessing a joke is that the full circumstances of the case may never be known. Take the following:

“A man went to the doctor’s with terrible pains in his ears. ‘I’m afraid that you’ll have to be castrated,’ the doctor told him.

” ‘Well,’ the man replied. ‘I can’t bear this pain any more, so I suppose I’ll just have to go ahead.’

“Two days after the operation, the man went to his tailor who asked him which way he wanted the trousers to hang.

“‘Oh, said the man, ‘I don’t care. It doesn’t really matter, does it?’

“‘It does, replied the tailor. ‘If they don’t hang right you get terrible pains in your ears.'”

Now it’s unlikely that any European judge would wish to become involved in ruling on a case which was so obviously political. For it is well known throughout Europe that the UK’s health-service is in some difficulty and, while no continental European would be surprised to learn that English doctors prescribed unorthodox treatment for earache, none would wish to pass judgment on what is essentially an internal domestic matter. So once again the law, a clumsy instrument at best, would be hard put it to deal satisfactorily with the matter before it.

The UK, however, may avoid the full scrutiny of the courts. According to a commission spokesman, “The new law is really aimed at the southern countries where there isn’t much understanding of this.” Which points strongly to the need to hasten the long overdue harmonisation of la plaisanterie bleue. By the way, have you heard the one about the Italian straight-cucumber farmer and the short-sighted lady veterinarian?

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