The scene, several decades ago, is a BBC production department meeting and I am a timid recruit, already unnerved by the savage humour of my new colleagues.
Down the corridor come dramatically late arrivals, the two most talented producers in the department, reckless young men, clattering, exaggeratedly goose-stepping - and entering the room with silent and utterly impertinent Sieg Heil salutes to their boss, a man profoundly disliked for his spite and high-handed pomposity. Suppressed snorts of laughter all round.
‘Where there is legitimacy, the charge sticks in a way respectful debate could never achieve’
Very bad taste? Certainly. Cruel disregard for his feelings? Definitely. Skilfully given feedback? Of course not. Did it moderate the boss’s behaviour? Not immediately. Did it alter the way people saw him? Yes; and his ability to bully and hector was permanently reduced thereafter.
The newly ennobled Lord Sugar caused a stir in the summer of 2009 by threatening libel against a journalist who had made a few disrespectful jokes at his expense. Our moral guardians advise sober, courteous, logical argument where you attack the idea but never the person; be thoughtful but never abusive; make a reasoned case, don’t insult. However daft you think the idea (creationism and kidnapping by aliens come to mind here), be tremendously politically correct and never laugh at people.
I have been a stout advocate of all of this myself - a believer in the necessity of legislation to enforce equality where persuasion will not do the trick - and I still am.
And yet, finding myself guffawing helplessly as I watched the DVD of Sacha Baron Cohen’s outrageous, wickedly rude and very funny film, Brüno, I have come to wonder whether a little more impudent insult of those whose aim is to overawe us with their status and grandeur might not be a such a bad thing. I will never now be able to see an item about a fashion catwalk, or the “curing” of homosexuals without remembering the deliciously enjoyable and toe-curlingly embarrassing way “Brüno” dissed his victims.
The merciless wit of political sketch writers, cartoonists - and indeed parliamentary debate itself - shows how powerful it can be. Vince Cable’s jibe about Gordon Brown, allegedly going in a few weeks “from Stalin to Mr Bean” affected Mr Brown’s already damaged PR.
David Steel has admitted the damage inflicted to his career by his Spitting Image alter ego - a tiny, squeaky voiced puppet literally in the pocket of a large, haughty David Owen.
If there is no truth to such insults, the target will fight back successfully. Where there is legitimacy, then the charge sticks, maybe in a way that respectful debate could never achieve.
Later in my career, in a different organisation, the comedy cabaret at a Christmas party was delivered by our talented in-house satirist. His witty spoof expertly punctured the inflated claims and frankly absurd waffle of our bosses. Was it chance a year later many in his audience had moved on and the organisation had to admit it was deluded in its grandiose claims?