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The banning of the Daily Show

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.

Steven Fielding

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  1. Quite right on satire’s potentially apolitical function, I think: it produces stereotypes which can be flung around to shut down debate. There’s something very anti-utopian and self-satisfied about it at times too: any project, scheme or individual can be made to look ludicrous and the result is we sit around doing sod all because, well, look at the fools trying to make things better! Ha! Haha! I saw him being punctured ruthlessly by that man who walked round Ireland with a fridge on HIGNFY!! Now I’m all for people distrusting politicians- but not in a cynical reflex- I want critical engagement which considers alternatives.

    But…I also think it’s absolutely vital. If I can play at being a liberal for a minute (hey, I will always defend liberalism from the right) then I think it’s vital we retain the ability to pop a politiican’s pompousity (that alliteration was a bit self-satisfied too, wasn’t it?). My old local MP Patrick Cormack got in a right old tizz about Rory bloody Bremner appearing at a political awards ceremony once because MPs deserved more respect than to be laughed at. No-one deserves to be above being laughed at; least of all the people who (think they) run the country. Otherwise you end up ever closer to authoritarianism.

    I also think satire that’s not too smug can be pretty useful. Brass Eye was utterly utterly briliant and, I’m sure, helped change people’s perceptions of the media in the kind of critical way I was suggesting above. Likewise The Thick of It and- Thatcher notwithstanding- Yes (Prime) Minister.

    • Damn you, you have stolen some of the lines that I’ll be delivering – with impeccable timing – at the session ‘In Defence of Politics: What is Comedy and Satire Doing to Our Politics?’ which forms part of the Festival of Politics at Edinburgh to be held at the end of August (details here:

      You are right: comedy in general and satire in particular can be liberating but also very conservative; it can challenge stereotypes and assumptions but it can also reinforce them. Chris Morris (Brass Eye) has few peers in standing up to the conventional wisdom – the episodes on paedophiles and drugs are truly brilliant. Armando Iannucci (The Thick of It) and others however too often reinforce prejudices about politics. Both are of course very funny.

      Politicians as individuals should not be beyond criticism or even ridicule but we have passed the point at which the same tired cliches – politicians are all corrupt, over-sexed, useless, interested in their own careers to the exclusion of the public good – are reinforcing existing mistrust of representative politics as a system. This, in the end, is not apolitical because it bolsters the arguments of neo-liberals – it was no accident that Margaret Thatcher admired Yes Minister so much.

  2. The Brass Eye crime special feels more pertinent than ever right now. I wonder if any of the rioters will get to sit in a canoe if they’re good.

    Interesting point about reinforcing mistrust in representative politics as clearing space for neoliberalism. I need to think on this before I can say anything remotely useful!

  3. I’m not sure I agree that satire has run its course in the way you depict. What constituted satire in the 1960s is very different today. Back then it was difficult to discover what scams politicians or other groups were engaged in. Investigations of corruption in justice or police work were often covered up. Today we have more means to find out and therefore more things about which to satirize.

    Have I Got News For You is worthwhile and necessary. It amazes me that some politicians will go on the show thinking they won’t suffer. That was especially true during the MPs expenses scandal. There is a functional equivalence between MPs and bankers here: both believe it is time to let things go, no more apologies and back to normal. The populace aren’t ready to accept that nor should they. Satire has a role in ensuring they are held to account.

    What would we do without Private Eye in the UK? Many disclosures wouldn’t occur but for the work Private Eye puts into its investigations. Moreover, if we can’t prick pomposity with jokes and humour what are we left with? Dry discussion redolent of undergraduate political societies? God forgive us.

    No satire is necessary. It liberates, it undermines but it doesn’t stifle serious conversation if that’s what you want. But you could argue that one of the effects of globalization is an overwhelming sense of helplessness at the pace and intensity of events. Humour gets us through.

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