If you were expecting to see the Daily Show on More4 this week you would have been disappointed.
While the rest of the world could see Jon Stewart’s take on the News International hacking controversy, viewers in the UK were denied that pleasure.
Stewart’s usual method of editing footage of politicians for comedic effect fell foul of an arcane prohibition – because in the relevant segment he dared to use footage of MPs speaking in the Commons chamber. The offending segment can be found on this website (use the search facility!). Ironically Stewart’s point was that the British political system – which he describes as ‘awesome’ – holds our executive to better account than do the Americans: perhaps naively, he is praising the UK Parliament!
Television comedians have satirised politicians in this way for some time. This clip from Armando Iannucci’s Time Trumpet illustrates David Cameron’s desire to be the heir to Blair possibly better than any journalist could. But the film of Cameron and Blair was not shot in the precincts of the Mother of Parliaments.
The Today programme discussed the prohibition and any listener might have wondered why it remains in place – although MP Roger Gale still feels Parliament needs such protection.
On August 27th, as part of the Festival of Politics in Edinburgh I’ll be debating with some British comedians about the effect of satire on politics. Once a breath of fresh air in the 1960s the idea of the corrupt, lying, pompous politician has I think now become a lazy cliche – the equivalent of the mother-in-law or Irish joke of the 1970s. It also has political effects. It’s no accident that Guido Fawkes – who trades in a jokey denigration of all politicians – is committed to an extreme neo-liberal agenda which mistrusts any kind of authority not based on the market. Yes Minister was so liked by Margaret Thatcher because it showed civil servants to be self-interested and politicians too weak to do anything about it – the series made her case for reducing government better than she ever could.
As the political novelist Anthony Trollope wrote in his autobiography: ‘The writer of stories must please, or he will be nothing. And he must teach whether he wish to teach or no’. The same can be said of any kind of any artist, comedians included. For if nothing else, the reiteration of the same image – or joke – can reinforce what people think about any subject.
Those making comedy at the expense of politics do therefore have some responsibilities that go beyond making us laugh. But they should not be hedged in by the kind of censorship that kept the Daily Show off our screens. In trying to protect Parliament from falling into disrepute this particular measure has only made Parliament look more ridiculous than could have any comedian.