Who had a good election and who had a bad one? In the aftermath of the result, Paul Goodman provided a definitive list of the winners and losers. Well, very nearly definitive. Because while the list of losers included “all pollsters” and “most, ahem, pundits” it omitted a third category of vocal bystanders: satirists.
In this country, high profile satire is the most biased form of broadcasting – trumping even BBC Radio drama for political correctness. For the sake of ‘balance’, the assault on the Conservative Party, UKIP and the Daily Mail occasionally pauses for a swipe at Labour, but even then the attack comes from the left.
And yet, as the election result demonstrates, it is all to no avail. The satirists have had no more luck that Ed Miliband in changing our minds.
So is satire dead? Not quite, says Toby Young in the Spectator:
“…but it has lost a good deal of vitality in recent years and the role of satire in the general election campaign is a case in point. There has been no shortage of ‘satirical’ television programmes, but none of them have cut through.”
He points out that some of the smartest political humour now comes from the internet (for instance, the photoshop virtuoso @GeneralBoles). Indeed, satirical TV shows like Have I Got News for You now find themselves catching up with memes that were circulating online days earlier.
In accounting for the flabbiness of broadcast satire, Young examines and discards a number of possible explanations, before hitting upon the truth:
“…I think the reason political satire has lost so much of its bite is because the status of politicians had declined in the past 50 years or so. Back in 1961, when the Establishment first opened its doors, the sight of Peter Cook on stage doing an impression of Harold Macmillan was genuinely shocking because the political class was still looked up to.”
“Not any more. Today, a satirist expressing a modicum of respect for a politician — Steve Coogan endorsing Ed Miliband, for instance — is front-page news, whereas a comedian showering the Prime Minister with insults goes unnoticed.”
More than half a century on from The Establishment, the real irony is that the most prominent satirists are now pillars of the actual establishment (or, at least, the cultural parts thereof). Toby Young mentions Armando Iannucci, but other examples include Ben Elton, Stephen Fry and, of course, Russell Brand.
Of course, they’re not all as elevated as the above gentlemen, but even those further down the pecking order occupy a privileged position – having the chance to broadcast their views at length and without challenge. On the rare occasions where they do open themselves up to question, they come unstuck. Russell Brand’s interview with Evan Davis on Newsnight was one example. Another was Jolyon Rubinstein’s appearance on This Week in which was he came off worse against Andrew Neil and Michael Portillo. For the most part, however, the satirists enjoy a one-sided conversation with the public.
Mr Rubinstein is best known for his BBC Three series The Revolution Will Be Televised. A better title for most political comedy shows would be The Opinions of the Cultural Elite Will Be Televised. Toby Young is surely right when he says that “great satire, like great journalism, speaks truth to power”, but there’s nothing great about the confirmation humour of the media establishment.
Thank goodness, then, for W1A – a BBC sitcom that satirises the BBC. In the Guardian, Charlotte Higgins praises the show’s acutely observed humour, but frets it may be too close to the knuckle:
“The problem with W1A is that it lays too many institutional foibles bare for all to see. One pre-election Daily Mail review of the show said: “If the bumbling buffoons of W1A are even halfway accurate then it’s little wonder all the political parties are promising to either reduce or freeze the licence fee.” As an example of the BBC’s creative energy, W1A is a wonderful advocate for the corporation; as a view on its inner workings, it’s hard not to see it as slightly self-sabotaging.
Well, good. Satire should be dangerous. But if W1A does encourage the Culture Secretary John Whittingdale to swing the axe, he must aim for the BBC’s overgrown bureaucracy, not the best of its programming.