Why is it legal to call someone a bull’s pizzle, but a crime to call him a codhead?

Blackpool Magistrates recently came down hard on a Thornton rat-catcher.

Mark Seddon’s love life had had its ups and downs. During one of its downs his girl-friend left him. She took up with a man who Mr Seddon didn’t like.

Some pest control consultants might have resorted to violence, but Mr Seddon was more restrained. He turned to social media. He sent his ex a “Whats App” message setting out succinctly his opinion of the new man in her life:

He is, said Mr Seddon, a “fat-bellied codhead.

As one would expect these days, the police were informed and Mr Seddon was prosecuted under Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 for sending:

by means of a public electronic communications network a message … that [was] grossly offensive.

It is a surprisingly serious charge, carrying a possible sentence of 6 months imprisonment.

A no-doubt contrite Mr Seddon admitted the charge earlier this month, and the Magistrates were merciful. Instead of locking him up, they fined him £500.00.

Some commentators have expressed surprise at the size of the fine, and even more at the fact that Mr Seddon was prosecuted at all.

In 2012, in the well-known “Twitter joke” case1, the Divisional Court helpfully ruled thatfor those who have the inclination to use “Twitter” for the purpose, Shakespeare can be quoted unbowdlerised,” and there is no reason why WhatsApp should be treated differently. On this authority, Mr Seddon could lawfully have called his rival:

Thou clay-brained guts, thou knotty-pated fool, thou whoreson obscene greasy tallow-catch!”

If he wanted to emphasise his portly figure, he would have been quite safe with another WhatsApp message from Henry IV Part 1:

trunk of humours, that bolting-hutch of beastliness, that swollen parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack, that stuffed cloak-bag of guts, that roasted Manningtree ox with pudding in his belly, that reverend vice, that grey Iniquity, that father ruffian, that vanity in years.”

Or, if he wanted to stick to a vaguely fishy theme:

you eel-skin, you dried neat’s-tongue, you bull’s-pizzle, you stock-fish–O for breath to utter what is like thee!-you tailor’s-yard, you sheath, you bow-case, you vile standing tuck”

would have been quite acceptable.

The editor of the authoritative UK Criminal Law Blog, Dan Bunting, even went so far as to to describe Mr Seddon’s prosecution as perhaps “the most ludicrous of 2016.” Well maybe; but as Mr Bunting himself pointed out, there was perhaps more going on than meets the eye. Possibly, speculates Bunting, there was a history of harassment. Mr Seddon was also issued with a restraining order preventing him from contacting “the complainant” (who one assumes was the ex-girlfriend rather than the fat-bellied codhead himself), which certainly hints if not at past harassment then at a fear of what the future could bring if Mr Seddon is not deterred.

It was nevertheless a pretty odd charge. The CPS has guidelines on prosecuting such offences. No prosecution should be brought unless the communication in question is more than:

* Offensive, shocking or disturbing; or

* Satirical, iconoclastic or rude comment; or

* The expression of unpopular or unfashionable opinion about serious or trivial matters, or banter or humour, even if distasteful to some or painful to those subjected to it.

Even then, the guidelines point out that “there is the potential for a chilling effect on free speech and prosecutors should exercise considerable caution before bringing charges ….

Others have criticised Seddon’s solicitor, John McLaren of the well-respected Blackpool firm W H Darbyshire. “Why is everyone so feeble and dense these days?” asked the always combative Barbara Hewson, “are they lawyers or muppets? Where,” she asked, “are the heirs to Garrow, Carson and Marshall Hall?

She may be being a little hard on Mr McLaren. She doesn’t know what advice he gave to his client. Quite possibly he advised him that he should fight the case, but Mr Seddon simply wanted to get it over with. For all we know, he took a commercial decision that he could earn more money in a day’s rat-catching than he could save by sitting in the dock watching Mr McLaren argue the toss about a cod’s head.

Moreover, a fact little known outside Lancashire is that the expression “codhead” is more insulting than it may appear at first blush. In that part of the world “cods heads” is a term sometimes applied to residents of the nearby fishing port of Fleetwood, and particularly to supporters of the town’s football club. Indeed, although Fleetwood Town supporters style themselves “The Cod Army,” many residents of Fleetwood take strong exception to being called cods-heads, especially by people from Blackpool.

Perhaps the object of Mr Seddon’s offensive communication was from Fleetwood.

Where “hate-crime” is involved Crown Prosecutors are instructed to take a much tougher line than in other cases.

Did Mr Seddon commit a hate-crime against his Fleetwood love rival?

The guidelines say:

“Prosecutors must also have regard to whether the offence was motivated by any form of discrimination against the victim’s ethnic or national origin, gender, disability, age, religion or belief, sexual orientation or gender identity; or the suspect demonstrated hostility towards the victim based on any of those characteristics. The presence of any such motivation or hostility will mean that it is more likely that prosecution is required.”

It is hard to see that coming from Fleetwood amounts to an “ethnic or national origin,” and being “fat-bellied” is surely not a “disability”; but the guidelines go on:

Prosecutors should be alert to any additional reference or context to the communication in question. Such references or context may sometimes elevate a communication that would otherwise not meet the high threshold to one that, in all the circumstances, can be considered grossly offensive.”

We must therefore assume that there was some “additional reference or context” that elevated Mr Seddon’s message into something deserving of prosecution. As with Shakespeare, apparently innocuous lines sometimes turn out to be startlingly obscene to those with specialist knowledge. We can only assume that to those in the know there is some deeper and even nastier meaning in the words “fat-bellied codhead.”

As an afterthought it’s worth pointing out that The Cod Army should not always be seen as helpless victims in need of protection from grossly offensive insults. Sometimes they can dish it out, as a visit to the website terracechants.me.uk reveals. When Fleetwood plays Blackpool the terraces ring to the sound of:

Your mum’s a crack whore
Your dad’s a queen
We fucking hate tangerine!

It’s certainly not as Shakespearean as Mr Seddon’s insult, and to my mind at least somewhat more offensive. As the Crown Prosecution Service recently pointed out:

There is a place for humour in football but where the line between humour and offensive behaviour is crossed then positive action will be taken ….”

As a result, a CPS hate crime co-ordinator has taken positive action and written a more suitable chant for such occasions which avoids giving offence, although terracechants.me.uk says it has yet to achieve quite the same popularity:

Since I was young da da da da I followed on da da da da F T F C da da da da the team for me da da da da da da da da da da da da da (Repeat)

Again, it’s not Shakespeare but at least if you tweet that (you’ll have to cut out a few da da das) you won’t be prosecuted.

1Chambers v. DPP [2012] EWHC 2157 (Admin)

Author: Matthew

I have been a barrister for over 25 years, specialising in crime. You may also have come across some of my articles I have written on legal issues for The Times, Standpoint, Daily Telegraph or Criminal Law & Justice Weekly

4 thoughts on “Why is it legal to call someone a bull’s pizzle, but a crime to call him a codhead?”

  1. Cyber-crime? Haha The police have never enforced this legislation. If they did, the whole LGBT movement would collapse overnight, as it depends on cyber-bullying as its mainstay.
    LGBT activists send non-stop death threats, abuse, pathological messages and hysteria and nobody does anything about it. Oh, I beg your pardon, of course they do – they give subsidies out of taxpayers’ money.

  2. Fascinating if a little terrifying. Ironically blasphemy laws have been repealed in England and Wales – including profanity and cursing, but at least you knew where you were them.

    I looked up ‘toe rag’ to see if this had a literary provenance of sufficient weight. Surprised to see it was regarded as ‘antique’ – not in Wales I would say. One deluded American thought it might be derived from Tuereg – which of course would add a whole new dimension of prosecution if it were true.

    But look at this list of distinguished use from the OED
    I rest my case, toerag CPS. (no offence, only joking…)

    [f. toe n. + rag n.1]
    1. A rag wrapped round the foot and worn inside a shoe, in place of a sock.
    1864 J. F. Mortlock Experiences of Convict ii. ix. 80 Stockings being unknown, some luxurious men wrapped round their feet a piece of old shirting, called, in language more expressive than elegant, a ‘toe-rag’.
    1932 F. Jennings Tramping with Tramps vi. 98 Socks are very seldom worn. Instead you get a winding of cotton rag round the ball and toes of the foot as a safeguard against blisters. Toe-rags, the tramp calls them.
    1933 ‘G. Orwell’ Down & Out in Paris & London xxvii. 197 Less than half the tramps actually bathed.., but they all washed their faces and feet, and the horrid greasy little clouts known as toe-rags which they bind round their toes.
    2. A tramp or vagrant; a despicable or worthless person. Also attrib.
    1875 T. Frost Circus Life & Circus Celebrities xvi. 278 Toe rags is another expression of contempt..used..chiefly by the lower grades of circus men, and the acrobats who stroll about the country, performing at fairs.
    1903 ‘T. Collins’ Such is Life (1937) v. 229 ‘Come over to the wagon, and have a drink of tea,’ says I. ‘No, no,’ says he, ‘none of your toe-rag business.’
    1912 D. H. Lawrence Let. (1962) I. 154 Remember, whatever toe-rag I may be personally, I am the person she livanted with. So you be careful.
    1960 H. Pinter Caretaker i. 9 All them toe-rags, mate, got the manners of pigs.
    1971 ‘H. Calvin’ Poison Chasers xii. 168 Move, ya useless big toerag!
    1978 M. Kenyon Deep Pocket xiii. 165 Could she have loved this toe-rag sheikh out of the desert?
    1980 J. Wainwright Tainted Man 171 The Law doesn’t differentiate between you and the most miserable towrag [sic] on the face of the earth.
    toe-ragger Austral. slang = sense 2 above.
    1896 Truth (Sydney) 12 Jan. (Morris), The bushie’s favourite term of opprobrium ‘a toe-ragger’ is also probably from the Maori. Amongst whom the nastiest term of contempt was that of tau rika rika, or slave.
    1919 V. Marshall World of Living Dead (1969) 82 Over the way a ‘trial’ man had tossed a ‘chew’ to a ‘toeragger’.
    1953 E. Partridge in I. Bevan Sunburnt Country 217 Some of the gold-diggers were tramps,..and several terms connected with them are worth recording–..toe-ragger, a dead~beat wanderer.
    1966 G. W. Turner Eng. Lang. Austral. & N.Z. vii. 144 The battler seems to have been the poorest itinerant. The toeragger was not much wealthier than the battler.

  3. You’d think that law enforcement in this country had better things to do than arrest and prosecute someone over something so trivial. Is this the best they can do? Let’s not talk about Rotherham….

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