So, the new head honcho at the BBC, Tim Davie, wants to cut “left-wing comedy” from the schedule. It’s hardly a surprising decision, though hugely mistaken, but not because of the “left-wing” aspect.
Reports this morning say that Davie wants less comedy which is “unfairly biased against the Tories, Donald Trump and Brexit”. Might it be that Davie is confusing satire with “left-wing comedy”? Satire is always anti-establishment, striking out at those in power, and challenging the ruling ethos. It’s the point of satire. Have I Got News For You was equally critical of the New Labour government, just as anybody doing satire at the time was making New Labour jokes. I was writing an entirely satirical blog through most of the New Labour years and the moment the Tories got into power I was attacking them with exactly the same rage as I’d attacked Labour. It didn’t mean that my comedy went from “right-wing comedy” to “left-wing comedy”. It was just satire. You attack the powerful. You criticise their mistakes, of which there are always plenty.
In fact, this is the one issue I had with Little Britain, long before its current “ban”. It was comedy that attacked the least powerful, mocked the elderly and disabled, and all from the perspective of two highly paid comedians living comfortably within the media bubble. Steve Coogan was also right about Top Gear, when – for a time – it settled into a cheap habit of mocking the impoverished, both at home and abroad. The whole point of satire is to kick the bully and, speaking for myself, I know that there’s little I abhor more than a bully.
Yet there is a strange phenomenon about at the moment, in which the most powerful reveal a degree of self-pity and claim that they’re inherently weak. I saw another story the other day saying that two rival companies are trying to set up a news outlet that will challenge the BBC and Sky by providing alternative news. The suggestion was that there wasn’t news putting forward a right-wing agenda or, at least, not since Fox News was dropped from the UK market. Yet, again, it seems worth pointing out that here in the UK, we are now into the tenth year of a Conservative government. Donald Trump is still the US president, and I believe that Brexit is still going ahead in its ‘no deal’ glory next year. Where exactly is the political Right suffering and not having their views expressed? They’re expressed every day in parliament and through the operations of a government pursuing a right-wing agenda based on a 42.4% share of the electorate. Arguably, it’s the majority (admittedly, a small majority account) that isn’t having their views expressed.
Now, of course, this conversation shifts quickly to other issues that are tangential to the main thesis. My entire point is that we need to protect satire. I’m not arguing that the kind of satire the BBC produces is necessarily good or welcome. In fact, I’ve long argued that satire in the UK tends to be too gentle, a release of pressure rather than a radical challenge to the status quo. Satire is too London-based, represented by people who are generally inside the comedy circuit (it’s why panel shows tend to recycle guests). Where Davie is right is that the BBC doesn’t represent the range of public opinion, though the danger is viewing those “range of opinions” through a privileged lens.
The result, then, is that you don’t view the British public in their totality but, rather, through a set of clichés that are rooted in the same old prejudices. This is too often the BBC’s response to diversity. They throw money at a show about reggae music (that’s the black point of view sorted), a bit of cash for a show about Salford clog makers (northerners will be happy), and then the rest to Scotland for Burn’s Night. You can see how their minds work. “Working class” means people who drink lager in front of the TV whilst complaining about bingo. “Scottish”means people who like bagpipes and grouse. “Liverpudlian” means Beatles and football. We all know the clichés yet anybody who lives inside one of these clichés knows that they’re entirely meaningless.
Let’s have the guy who speaks with the Queen’s (HM not NY) accent living in a squalid bedsit (we did it before with Hancock). Let’s give the Geordie a show dedicated to explaining Roman Britain. And if you’re making satire, don’t pigeonhole it in terms of “left” and “right”. Don’t, in fact, define it at all because that is to confine it. Plus, not everybody defines themselves by the terms “right” or “left”. I spend much of my day wondering which I am and concluding that I’m neither, but perhaps that’s why I care so much about satire. It’s about standing up to the bullies on both sides of the political divide who think their ideology offers all the answers.