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I’ve got news for you.. satire is dead

As a new series of HIGNFY approaches, its comedy is now preaching to the converted, and feels toothless in an age of virtue signalling but no virtue.

Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye, and comedian Paul Merton, longtime regulars on Have I Got News for You. Image: TNE

In 2016 I finally achieved a lifetime’s ambition, and went to a studio in central London to record two episodes of Just a Minute, the Radio 4 panel show that’s so long-lived it’s positively antediluvian. I grew up listening to it in an era when sexual relations between men were a criminal offence, and hearing the outrageously camp Kenneth Williams – a regular panellist – queening it over the airwaves was enough to make what would otherwise have seemed pretty staid, distinctively subversive – satiric, even.

But by 2016, the great players of “the game” (I’ll explain the inverted commas shortly), such as Williams, had gone. The only veteran of the 1960s remaining was the chairman, the by-then nonagenarian Nicholas Parsons, a man whose broadcasting style was so remorselessly anodyne, you could imagine him glad-handing Hitler – which was why I was shocked by the way he greeted me in the green room.

He avoided my eyes, and wouldn’t accept the hand I offered. It was the same with two of the other panellists appearing that evening: both Sheila Hancock and Paul Merton looked at me as if I were a piece of shit that had arrived on someone’s shoe. Ross Noble, the fourth panellist, seemed bemused by the negative vibes – and still more so once the recording began in front of a live audience.

A recording that was all-but ruined because Merton and Hancock, with Parsons’ able assistance, set out from the get-go to sledge me. For those of you unfamiliar with JaM, the aim is, famously, for the contestants to speak for a full minute without hesitation, repetition, or deviation on a given subject. Their fellow performers can gain points by successfully challenging them – or lose points if they fail. Of course, the whole set-up is really just that: “contestants” are fully briefed well in advance of what the topics will be that evening, and have days to write and rehearse their little speeches.

Those making their debut on the show are normally afforded some leeway, but Merton and Hancock persistently interrupted me with marginal challenges that Parsons allowed – or the reverse: when I challenged them, all three would belittle or ridicule my intervention, while Parsons disallowed it.

I was rattled – while Merton’s and Hancock’s behaviour during the second show recorded that evening was so egregious it was never broadcast. I couldn’t figure out what the problem was – and as they continued beaming antipathy at me, I left the studio sharpish. On the way home it finally dawned on me what it was all about: an article I’d written four years previously for the London Evening Standard.

One in which I’d criticised another show – this time a television one: Have I Got News for You, another season of which will soon grind into motion. Throughout the noughties I’d been a regular on HIGNFY, but I’d begun to get bored with its formulaic and increasingly toothless excuse for satire. I’d appeared in memorable episodes – including one in which the late, great Linda Smith ridiculed the hapless Neil Kinnock to perfection. But as time had gone by, the problem for the show was that faced by an entire genre of broadcast satire.

Namely, that while to begin with, politicians and other celebrities were easily duped by young Jewish men from Stanmore pretending to be black (Sacha Baron Cohen’s Ali G), or by young Jesuit-educated men fooling them that a dangerous new drug called Cake was about to become the scourge of the nation’s youth (Chris Morris in any number of guises), after several years of this, they were beginning to wise up. 

Indeed, this “golden age” of satire was really just one of partial ignorance: all deference had finally departed from British public life during the “call me Tony” Blair years, such that poking fun at the political classes through impersonations, guying and repartee had become quite impossible. The great satire boom of the 1960s took place in a Britain where people still stood for the national anthem at the end of film showings – Peter Cook’s drawling, semi-senile take on Harold Macmillan was beyond lèse-majesté – it was in effect treason. 

Even into the Margaret Thatcher era, ridiculing rulers by representation alone still had a certain traction – sufficient, at any rate, for the likes of Fluck and Law with their Spitting Image puppets to still be gobbing over the footlights 40 years later; but no one really believed any more that popular discontent with a government could be weaponised with witty barbs. Rather, the rulers themselves must be literally bemerded – nothing else will suffice. 

My old collaborator, Ralph Steadman, an astute satirist, saw this coming – by the time we covered the 1997 election together, he was already refusing to draw politicians’ faces. Because it didn’t matter how ugly he made them, or what contumely he piled on them, the result was always the same: they got in touch asking to buy the glyph, then, presumably, hung it in their downstairs toilet so their guests could marvel at all the publicity they were getting.

Henceforth, Ralph would only draw their legs – but television provided a broader satiric brush, which for a while still captured the political class’s preening for what it is. Because no matter how vain a politician might be, there’s nothing more damaging to his or her sense of dignity than to be shown attempting to keep up with technology (and hence in wiv da yoof), then farcically failing. 

All those shows in which politicians were spoofed were also ones, unfortunately, in which the generality of humankind were being spoofed as well: they thought Ali G was real – and he was the very real precursor of all the fake news and conspiracy theory that means the contemporary world is effectively beyond satire. 

Anyway, in my 2012 piece for the Standard, I argued that while HIGNFY’s regulars – Ian Hislop, the editor of Private Eye, and the comedian Paul Merton – were still pretty droll, it was getting difficult to see them as scabrous satirists, since age and success had so conspicuously mellowed them. Furthermore – and I suspect it’s this barb that cut most deeply into Merton’s sensitive hide: “It’s hard to credit them as effectively wielding what is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful, when they’re so clearly part of an elite.”

I enjoyed appearing on the show until this began to impinge: what was the point of wittily dissecting the week’s news and current affairs if the genuinely powerful absent themselves, and in their place is some poltroon without a portfolio? On my last HIGNFY, when the proceedings began to flag, Hislop and Merton came up with some inspired banter regarding baldness in general, and the show’s presenter, Clive Anderson’s, in particular.

Of course, if my aim was to out-satire the satire show, I manifestly failed. Satire is sometimes figured as a morally purposive activity, the aim of which is to draw people back to their neglected ethics. But, 12 years on, Hislop and Merton are still raking it in for sitting behind a plywood panel for an hour or so while making lamer and lamer quips.

I say “raking it in” – but is this important? In an interview he clearly gave after reading my Standard piece, Merton claimed that I wasn’t happy doing the show because I’d made a joke about fisting that didn’t go down well with the audience, who as a result didn’t like me. Utter cack. Until I wrote the piece, I was the guest panellist who’d appeared the most – and of course I understood perfectly well that by writing it I was kissing goodbye to this particular bully pulpit and its handsome sinecure. No, if there’s anything missing from the account above, it’s that at the same time as I was getting fed up with the slaphead gags, I learned from Janet Street-Porter that Hislop and Merton were getting north of £13,000 per episode, while us guests were on a flat grand.

Which already seems like a lot of money for engaging in repartee for an hour or so – while 13 times more for dialling it in the way Merton often does is enough to make minimum-wage viewers heave their cookies, rather than laugh uproariously at the way these millionaires are taking down… Well, taking down whom? Because, if a morally reformative satirist can only attack those further up the hierarchy than they are, the likes of Hislop and Merton are necessarily disallowed. 

Or at least, they should be if their ethics are based on Christianity with its dim view of the rich – unless they’re uncommonly thin. One of the problems for TV satire in particular is that shows no longer command ratings so high that they’re effectively addressing the entire nation. When millions are watching, even a modest slight becomes a mighty blow – whereas with the Balkanisation of broadcasting, it’s a case of preaching to the converted: people who watch satire shows being just the sort who are likely to agree with the satirists’ position to begin with.

Worse still, there’s this troublesome matter of moral reform: if satire has no aspiration to this, it’s merely abuse. No matter how far a society may have drifted from its ethical compass, there still remains the possibility of reorientation – but only if that compass remains singular and defined. 

The trouble with multicultural societies is that they have manifold moralities, such that one person’s satire (The Satanic Verses, the Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad) becomes another’s blasphemy. There’s no easy way around this – although I suppose the best possible scenario is one in which satirical standpoints compete bloodlessly and consensually – the same way as the political positions they’re attacking.   

In my Standard piece I was at once blinkered and prescient: I understood that satire was in a bad way – but I couldn’t imagine that some politicians would directly benefit as a result. On the contrary, in identifying Boris Johnson as one of the politicians who had in effect won HIGNFY by making its audience laugh, I thought I’d fingered precisely what would destroy his political career: a reversal of the peace dividend, whereby all those lampoons would be hammered into harpoons, and then pierce his ruddy hide. 

Yes, in that antediluvian era Nicholas Parsons was funny, while it seemed surpassingly unlikely that a farceur such as Johnson would win a second term as London mayor – let alone ascend all the way to the top of the greasy pole. What I failed to understand was that when satire becomes as ineffectual as it has in contemporary Britain, the fact that a politician cannot be taken seriously works entirely to their advantage. Not having any sense of moral indignation to be aroused, the electorate will vote for the funny man precisely because they find him funny. 

As for the satirist-turned-politician himself, if he’s any kind of comedian at all – and Johnson undoubtedly is – he knows that getting an audience to laugh is getting their vote; putting a cross in a box is merely an afterthought. Nietzsche described wit as “the epitaph of an emotion”; and it follows that a political discourse typified by humour is the elegy of any public ethics. 

Which isn’t very funny at all – and certainly explains why current efforts to produce satire that really makes people think about what’s good and bad, and consider doing the former rather than the latter, are in such very short supply. HIGNFY’s trajectory – from politically savvy satire to feeble panel show – is one that has been followed, in real time, but its emulators, such as Mock the Week and The Mash Report, have now gone – leaving Merton’s meal ticket behind. 

Last summer, Gregg Wallace, the presenter of MasterChef, was accorded a great satirist, who walked in the footsteps of Jonathan Swift, no less, because he presented a spoof TV programme: The British Miracle Meat, in which he extolled the virtues of a new meat substitute produced by cloning from human cells. 

The comparison with Swift was warranted, apparently, because of his 1729 diatribe A Modest Proposal, in which he put forward a solution to the famine then gripping Ireland: the poor should rear, slaughter, and eat their own babies. But here are the salient differences between the two squibs: the practices Swift was satirising were real and present – expropriation of landless peasants, a failure to diversify agricultural production, rack-renting etc, all of which amounted to collective infanticide. Moreover, the readers Swift was addressing were directly those literate, well-to-do people whose behaviour contributed to the situation. And finally, there was Swift himself, who was in a pretty good position as far as recalling his readers to their morals was concerned, being himself an ordained priest.

Wallace, by contrast, is a loudmouthed television presenter of cookery competitions, with no more moral authority than this suggests. 
His spoof programme was broadcast in a fractured media landscape that meant it only reached those who wanted to see it with ease – so preached largely to the converted. As to what Wallace’s “human meat” skit was satirising – and implicitly condemning – it’s surely exactly the sort of foodie culture that’s made him a household name. After all, with no processed food industry to criticise, there’s no virtue to the DIY cooking he’s made a fortune extolling.

Merton’s wingman, Ian Hislop, has at least this virtue: he also edits Private Eye, which continues to do honourable work attempting to expose the corruption and perfidy of our political and corporate class, most recently in its coverage of the Horizon Post Office scandal. But investigative journalism isn’t satire per se – while the humour in Private Eye remains ossified in the minor-public-school mores of its very establishment founders (Hislop, interestingly, is a regular Church of England communicant). It took years for the Eye to stop being homophobic – and I’m not entirely sure it has to this day, as the cartoon strip “It’s Grim up North London” seems to me a tired old retread of the infamous “The Gays” strip, penned by Michael Heath, who, at the Murdochian age of 87, is still the Spectator’s cartoon editor.

Some might say, OK, political satire is in a bad way – but what about the social variety? Surely, shows such as The White Lotus and Succession have made us happily revile the stream of wealth these very odd fish swim in. Certainly, their writers make these rich people look bad, but if you imagine for one minute that anyone watching would seriously turn down the offer of an all-exes-paid holiday at any of the eponymous resort hotels featured in the former show, let alone a portion of the mighty media empire that forms the agon in the latter one… Well, frankly, you belong to the league of the self-deceived. 

No, Succession was so very popular that the Murdoch press – which is built on populism and little else – had no alternative than to provide the sort of breathless coverage such shows are now accorded, as if they were real events rather than fictions based on them. 

The great American satirist HL Mencken said that good journalism should “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted”, a maxim that seems to me to apply even better to effective satire. So surely, if Succession’s satire was in the least bit effective, its objects would feel rather more afflicted than they manifestly do.  

All of which brings us to perhaps the most important question: is it, as the great American satirist Hunter Thompson put it almost half a century ago, that satire is no longer possible “because reality itself is too twisted”, or is it that satirists have themselves become too pusillanimous? Certainly, this was the line taken by those who supported Islamophobic cartoons, novels etc, but as I indicated above, this is an impossible line to draw nowadays, in a postmodern world where people view ethics at best as relative, and at worst as entirely arbitrary.

Perhaps surprisingly for a writer with a satiric bent myself, I take the view that both are the case: successful satire is very difficult to pull off in an age of virtue signalling but no virtue, when those who could do with a thorough affliction masquerade as being the afflicted. 

An example of properly targeted satire is, in my not-so-humble view, the piece of mine the New European published back in May of last year, in which I made fun of the Guardian editor Kath Viner’s egregious nepotism. Far from even understanding this as satire, prominent Guardian journalists and other liberal commentators took to social media in order to accuse me of sexism and misogyny – a great gallimaufry of the comfortable, who just couldn’t bear to see one of their own afflicted.     

Which brings me back to Paul Merton, a thin-skinned “satirist” and comedian with such a bad sense of humour that after an almost five-year interval he sought revenge on me for comments I made about him that were… entirely true.

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