Jon Stewart hosting the Daily Show in 2004, during the show's most iconic period as an anti-establishment voice. Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Why Britain needs its own Jon Stewart

In 2010, Helen Lewis looked back over a decade of The Daily Show and wondered - as Channel 4 decided to cut back its syndication - why Brits couldn't be so lucky as to have as good a satirist on TV every day as Jon Stewart.

In the snow-fixated run-up to Christmas, Channel 4 buried some terrible news: instead of showing all four episodes of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart throughout the week on its digital channel, in future it will broadcast just one weekly round-up.

This US import is evidently too expensive and its audience too niche, even for More 4. It's a crying shame. For anyone who doesn't know what the fuss is about -- and believe me, in the US The Daily Show causes plenty of fuss -- let me tell you why this is possibly the best programme on television. But first, a quick history lesson.

In 1996, a late-night satirical programme called The Daily Show started on a US cable channel called Comedy Central. Its host was Craig Kilborn and the focus was firmly on celebrities and pop culture. But when Kilborn left two years later and a spiky stand-up comedian called Jon Stewart took the reins, everything changed. From the start, Stewart was more interested in the national media and politics than the state of Britney's head or Lindsay Lohan's underwear.

I started watching in about 2002, by which time the show had already experienced the two events that were to change it for ever -- the election of George W Bush as US president in 2000 and al-Qaeda's attack on New York on 11 September 2001.

The latter was superbly handled by the show; back on air on 20 September, Stewart delivered a monologue on the resilience of New York and the importance of comedy during times of tragedy, which managed to be touching rather than mawkish. (You can see it here.)

In the months that followed, the right-wing press howled about "anti-Americanism" every time anyone disagreed with President Bush. (For all its shortcomings, Aaron Sorkin's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip evokes this period wonderfully).While the Republicans exulted in their monopoly on patriotism, the Democrats seemed even more supine than usual. But cometh the hour, cometh the satirist and Jon Stewart was in his element. Cheap but funny attacks on Bush's mangling of the English language gave way to biting criticism of the invasion of Iraq and the contempt with which the White House treated anyone who dared to question it.

The war was promptly christened "Mess O'Potamia" and senior Bush officials were skewered for their contorted explanations of why it was necessary. My particular favourite has to be Condoleezza Rice's claim that no one in the White House had given any thought to what might happen if al-Qaeda attacked America because the possibility seemed so remote. The show then gleefully played a clip from her testimony to the 9/11 commission, where she confessed to receiving a briefing in August 2001 called ""Bin Laden determined to attack inside the United States." (Now try to imagine a British show using a Commons committee hearing to such devastating effect.)

By the time the 2004 presidential elections rolled around, The Daily Show had become an established voice of opposition to President Bush. But it didn't spare his Democratic rival John Kerry, who was ruthlessly mocked for his boring speeches and let-them-eat-cake-isms. When YouTube launched in 2006, some of the first videos to attract millions of views were of Stewart - including his 2004 his appearance on CNN's debate show Crossfire.

He told the hosts that the media's focus on soundbites, mud-slinging and softball questions were "not so much bad . . . as hurting America" and they personally were "partisan hacks". The right-winger Tucker Carlson -- who'd already slightly undermined his cause by wearing an unspeakably hideous bow tie -- tried to rally by criticising Stewart for not treating his responsibilities as a journalist seriously enough. "If your idea of confronting me is that I don't ask hard enough news questions, we're in bad shape, fellas," shot back Stewart. "You're on CNN. The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls!" (Incidentally, Carlson left the show three months later. Perhaps he never got over the bit where Stewart said, "You're 35 -- and you're still wearing a bow tie?")

In 2006, one of The Daily Show's alumni, Stephen Colbert -- who'd been given his own spin-off show, The Colbert Report, the year before -- did something even ballsier.

He stood next to President Bush and called him ignorant and incompetent. The occasion was the White House Correspondents' Association dinner, which is usually a mildly risqué festival of back-slapping self-congratulation, in which the president makes a few jibes about his public image and the press corps get to pretend to be mean to him.

Colbert, however, went for the jugular. "I believe that the government that governs best is the government that governs least," he said near the start of the ten-minute speech. "And by these standards, we have set up a fabulous government in Iraq." He added that it didn't matter that the president had a 32 per cent approval rating, because polls only reflected what people were thinking in reality -- "and reality has a well-known liberal bias". (Until last year, you could see The Colbert Report on the FX Channel in Britain but that's also gone the way of the dodo.)

If you haven't watched the speech, I recommend you do -- as I'm writing this, I'm aware that you just don't get quite how near the knuckle all this stuff is, unless you're constantly reminded that Colbert is standing just a few feet away from Bush, who tries to chuckle while looking as if he wants to whisper "Kill hiiiim" to his security detail. Speaking truth to power is hard; speaking truth to power when it's sitting next to you at a dinner party and when everyone would rather you were chummy and collusive is quite another thing.

Predictably, the incident caused a media firestorm -- but it also confirmed that Comedy Central's fake news shows had to be taken seriously. The 2008 election proved this -- a young stripling called Senator Barack Obama stopped by, as did John McCain (whose journey from loveable, principled "maverick" to Palin-choosing party puppet can be seen in his many Daily Show interviews over the years).

Afterwards, with President Bush packed off on Marine One to "write" his memoirs, America's liberals held their breath. Who would give The Daily Show its punchlines now? For a few months, the programme wobbled. In contrast to Bush administration officials, Obama's cabinet seemed more than happy to come and explain their policies and the new mood of grown-up debate, which Stewart had long argued for, seemed in danger of making him redundant.

But then, like some magnificent whale breaking through the shallow seas of TV punditry, Fox News heaved into view. While Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity had been regular targets of the show, the inexorable -- and, to British eyes, largely inexplicable -- rise of Glenn Beck goaded Stewart into battle once more.

It's hard to explain what Glenn Beck does and how mesmerising his theatrical style is, so perhaps it's best if you just watch this iconic clip of him sobbing like -- in his own words -- a "frikking televangelist" as he explains his fears for America. It's here -- go on, I'll wait.

Disturbing, isn't it? While most rational people would conclude that Beck needs a strong cup of tea and a quiet sit-down in a darkened room rather than a daily television and radio show on which to air his views, the more paranoid elements of America clasped him to their bosom (right next to their rifles and signs comparing Obama with Hitler). He became a focus for everyone who didn't think that Obama was "American" enough to be president -- including the so-called "birthers" who cooked up an elaborate conspiracy theory about Obama going back in time to fake his own birth certificate in Hawaii.

Beck genuinely seemed to believe that Obama was some sort of communist, intent on depriving poor Americans of their God-given right to die because they couldn't afford adequate health insurance. His rhetoric helped, in a large part, to create the climate in which the Tea Party, and its darling Sarah Palin, has flourished. And so he made a worthy adversary for Stewart, whose relentless mockery of him culminated in this magnificent parody of both Beck's style and content. It was so successful that mainstream news shows covered it.

Last year, the importance of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report in American national debate was confirmed when the two held a "Rally for Sanity" in the Washington mall, which was intended as a counterweight to the Tea Party's earlier "Restoring Honor" event. More than 250,000 people turned up, brandishing signs that said things like "I disagree with you -- but I'm pretty sure you're not Hitler", "Use your inside voice" and "I hate taxes but I like roads, firemen, some cops, traffic lights (except red ones) . . . so I pay them anyway"). Over Christmas, Jon Stewart scored another political victory, stoking a backlash against the Republican Party's pledge to hold up a bill to help 9/11 rescue workers until it had secured continued tax cuts for the rich. The Republicans caved in.

In just over ten years, then, The Daily Show has gone from yappy terrier to lavishly toothed watchdog, snapping at the heels of the rich and powerful. And Britain needs its example more than ever -- particularly as even the BBC's director-general, Mark Thompson, thinks that Ofcom should relax rules on impartiality in television news broadcasting, paving the way for a British version of Fox News.

There are other reasons to love it, too -- not least the diversity of the voices it airs. Critics accuse it of being liberal, anti-war and secular but its correspondents have included everyone from a Marine Corps lieutenant colonel (Rob Riggle) and an Indian-born Muslim (Aasif Mandvi) to a devout Catholic who teaches Sunday school (Stephen Colbert). That's not to mention a mother of three (Samantha Bee, wife of fellow correspondent Jason Jones), two African Americans (Wyatt Cenac and Larry Wilmore), a British guy (John Oliver) and two people who were in The Hangover (Ed Helms and Rob Riggle). What's more, when Republicans and right-wingers have the cojones to appear, they're welcome -- both Bill O'Reilly and the former presidential candidate-turned-Fox News commentator Mike Huckabee have been recent guests.

Of course, Channel 4's argument for cutting back on The Daily Show must be that much of its subject matter is irrelevant to UK audiences -- it's true that Senate filibusters and spats at MSNBC or CNN can be pretty impenetrable -- and that the broadcaster would be better off developing original programming. (10 O'Clock Live, a satirical show starring David Mitchell and Charlie Brooker, which is currently filming a series of non-broadcast pilots, is their greatest hope in this regard.)

Still, I will mourn the loss of my nightly Daily Show fix. We law-abiding folks at the New Statesman would never condone illegally downloading it or using a proxy server to view it on the Comedy Central website, so the only way to watch it will be through iTunes. (You'll have to pay £9.99 for a fortnights's worth of episodes, though, so think about taking out a bank loan.) Let's all cross our fingers and hope that the BBC picks it up -- and The Colbert Report, too, while we're making new year wishes.

The best of The Daily Show (well, the bits that are available on YouTube, anyway):

1. Jon Stewart's Glenn Beck parody

Never have a blackboard, a crude drawing of a swastika and an unruly pair of glasses been more effective tools for satire.

2. Stewart interviews President Obama

Watched by 3.6 million people, Stewart grills the president on where he's going wrong and accidentally calls him "dude".

3. Colbert and the banana

Stephen Colbert reports on what Prince Charles may, or may not, have done with a male servant. For once, Colbert's deadpan delivery fails him and he nearly cracks up.

4. Even Stephven

Before Steve Carrell's move to Hollywood to alternate between making sweet indie comedies and studio stinkers, he was paired with Stephen Colbert in a segment called Even Stephven, in which they chewed over the issues of the day. Here's a vintage outing.

5. President Bush v Governor Bush

One of the things The Daily Show does best -- cleverly editing video clips together to make a point. Here, President Bush debates with the only man who can stand up to him -- his younger self.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Roy Hattersley: Labour is far closer to extinction now than in the 1980s

 If the takeover of the party by the far-left succeeds there will be no opportunity to rescue it from the wilder shores of socialism, says the former deputy leader.

The comparison with the Eighties is irresistible but misconceived. Labour is far closer to extinction as a major party than it was 35 years ago. That is not because Jeremy Corbyn is incapable of leading the party to victory — although he is. Nor is it because his supporters threaten the political assassination of anyone who says so — although they do. It is because, for the first time in its history, Labour is in real danger of a permanent domination by the unrepresentative and unelectable left.

All the other regular crises in the party’s history — German rearmament, nuclear disarmament, the defection of the Gang of Four to found the SPD — were resolved by mistakes being rectified, resolutions reversed and Labour resuming its place in the mainstream of British politics. Nor was there any genuine risk that the infiltrators from the far left would play a decisive part in national policy making. The Militant Tendency controlled municipal politics in Liverpool and attempted, with mixed success, to unseat vulnerable mainstream MP’s. But there was no possibility of them subverting the whole party. Now the far left operating through Momentum  aspires to make a decisive, and irreversible shift in Labour’s core ideology by initiating a purge of mainstream Labour MPs and a cull of headquarters office staff, reducing the part that the parliamentary party plays in choosing the leader and making the election manifesto the preserve of the annual conference. If the putsch — described by its instigators as an extension of party democracy — succeeds, there will be no opportunity for a latter day Neil Kinnock to rescue Labour from the wilder shores of socialism and the odds on its survival lengthen.

The crisis could have been averted. The parliamentary party  with the exception of a handful of residual Blairites  is ready for some sort of compromise. That is why, three weeks ago, it gave its overwhelming support to the proposal that the shadow cabinet should be elected by Labour MPs rather than chosen by the leader. The change was intended to allow an honourable return to the front bench for the shadow ministers who resigned in the spring. As a move towards unity, it is no more than papering over the cracks but better that than gaping fractures. Although Corbyn had neither the sense nor the grace immediately to accept the gesture of conciliation, the choice between an uneasy peace and continued guerrilla warfare still lies with him. If — as his victory speech suggests — he regards last Saturday’s victory as a mandate to impose his sectarian will on the party, the battle is likely end with mutual self-destruction.

Even if Jeremy Corbin succeeds in his attempts to create a permanent far-left hegemony, the Labour Party is unlikely to split as it did 30 years ago . The fate of the SDP — absorption into a Liberal Party which kept the Tory-led coalition in office or defiant independence that ended in the ignominy of polling fewer by-election votes than the Monster Raving Loony Party — has dampened enthusiasm for a breakaway movement. Nor are there charismatic potential leaders who stand ready to lead their followers into battle in the way that Roy Jenkins and David Owen (the Fidel Castro and Che Guevara of social democracy) marched a dozen Labour MPs into the valley of political death. But a futile attempt to form a new party would at least imply the hope of some sort ofresurrection. The more likely outcome would be the product of pure despair — the parliamentary Labour party would not divide and instead would begin slowly to disintegrate.

If the worst happens some Labour MPs will suddenly discover previously undetected virtues in Corbyn and Corbynism and line up behind him. Others will grow weary of being abused by local extremists and fade away. Contrary to public opinion, most MPs could earn more from less demanding jobs outside parliament. The politically dedicated, determined to be candidates in the next election, will accept the challenge of reselection. More will succeed than fail, but the harm to the party’s reputation will be immense.

One feature of the 1980 desertion will certainly be replicated. When the Gang of Four defected, the damage done by the loss of glamorous leadership was more than matched by the loss of hard working membership. If Labour MPs begin to believe that the battle for reason and recovery is no longer worth fighting the disenchantment will become infectious. Jeremy Corbyn’s devotees would still turn out for the rallies. But the enthusiasm with which they would tramp the streets on rainy nights, or spend boring weekends telephoning target voters, is in doubt. Reliance on the notion that the election can be won online is the refuge of politicians who either have not identified or do not understand the floating voters.

The haemorrhage has already begun — increased by the behaviour of recently recruited Corbynites who do not seem to have heard that their hero has an olive tree outside his office door. All over the country they are bullying and filibustering their way into the control of local parties — excoriating mainstream members, manipulating the rules of debate and postponing votes until late in the evening. Of course, the men and women who oppose them could play the same game. But they are, by their nature, reasonable people and they want to lead reasonable lives. That is why they represent the sort of Labour Party with which voters can identify. 

Unfortunately, many of the Labour MPs who should have led the campaign to recreate an electable party have spent the last year either sulking or complaining. They have been anti Corbyn but pro very little. Owen Smith’s leadership campaign ended in disaster not because of the size of the incumbent’s votes but because of the challenger’s failure to set out an alternative vision of the society that socialists hope to create. Angela Eagle would have won fewer votes, but she would come closer to reassuring party members that "moderates" (a deadening description which should be abandoned) have principles and policies. A campaign that relied on nothing except the obvious truth that Jeremy Corbyn would lead Labour to defeat was doomed from the start. A majority of the party members who joined before 2015 voted for Smith. Think of how many more would have done the same had he offered them more to vote for than disapproval of his opponent.

Corbyn, and many of the Corbynites, are unmoved by the evidence that they are heading straight to defeat. That is, in part, because Corbyn himself is in what psychiatrists call “total denial.” There were times last year when he seemed to be implementing a carefully coordinated plan to alienate all the middle-of-road voters on whose support a Labour victory depends. He has proposed the unilateral abandonment of the British nuclear deterrent, refused to back Britain’s continued membership of the European Single Market and defended his historic association with apologists for terrorism — all items on the curriculum vitae of a Labour leader who might have been invented by Conservative Central Office. No political leader in British history has been so careless about his party’s prospects at the ballot box. But that is only one of the reasons why the threat of defeat will do little to halt the party's leftward gallop.

There is, within the ranks of Corbyn supporters, a substantial number of activists who — since they do not believe that parliamentary democracy can create the socialist Utopia of their dreams — regard the election of a Labour Government as an irrelevance. Indeed they believe that a prolonged period of Tory misrule will bring forward the day when a spontaneous uprising will herald the new dawn. It is near to inconceivable that Corbyn believes in such millenarian nonsense. But he appear to subscribe to the equally fatuous view that the first task is to make Labour a genuinely socialist party and that winning elections can wait until it is accomplished.

That is clearly the view of those correspondents to the New Statesman who complain about Corbyn’s critics obsession with what they call “electablity”. It is easy for their cynics to sneer about putting power before principle, but winning is a matter of principle too. Labour exists to make those changes in society which can only be achieved in power. In 2016 the fight — to quote the former Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell in 1962 — is less about saving “the party we love” than about rescuing the nation from long years of  Tory bigotry. To behave in a way which diminishes — indeed for a time extinguishes — Labour’s chance of fulfilling its historic purpose is worse than self indulgent. It is betrayal.

There are major figures in the current drama of the Labour Party whose attitude towards the prospect of government is both inexcusable and incomprehensible. Chief among them is Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite and a man whose every bombastic television appearance is worth thousands of votes to the Tories. The members he represents have the strongest possible vested interest in a Labour victory at the next election. Yet many of his policies and pronouncements — particularly his risibly unsuccessful attempts to bully MPs into supporting Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership — contribute to the Conservatives’ opinion poll lead and increases the danger of massive defeat at the next election turning into total destruction.

Anyone who doubts that Labour could be reduced to the status of the Liberal Democrats or the Greens — struggling for influence without even hoping for power — should be sent to canvas for the party in Scotland. But the near oblivion north of the border is not yet inevitable in the south. Recovery will take time and before Labour can begin effectively to deal with the challenges from outside the party it must struggle back into the mainstream of politics — a process which has to begin with an acceptance that Jeremy Corbyn’s first election was more than a combination of the Peasants’ Revolt and the Children’s Crusade. For many of the men and women who voted for the first time in 2015 his victory represented the end of a decade of disillusion. At first they had felt no more than disappointment at opportunities that successive Blair Governments missed — their delight in the landslide victory of 1997 fading away until it was finally extinguished on the battlefields of Iraq.

The Peak District village in which I live is home to more Labour party members than the tourists may imagine. Two of them  —  a retired bank manager and an emeritus professor of cardiac surgery — voted for Corbyn in 2015. In part they were motivated by a desire to “give socialism a chance for once.” But they also thought that they were drawing a line under the years of “the third way” and triangulation. New Labour, in which they had once devoutly believed, had come to mean private enterprise edging its way into the health service, the surreptitious extension of secondary selection and light regulation of the City of London. Jeremy Corbyn, like the Scottish National Party, has much to thank Tony Blair for.

For some people Jeremy Corbyn was, like Donald Trump and Marine LePen, a welcome alternative to the politics of the establishment. To many more he was, by the very nature of his unelectability, the antidote to the opportunism which they (wrongly) believe characterises life in Westminster. Now, a mainstream candidate for the Labour leadership will have to make clear that they are guided not by opinion polls but by a vision of a new and better society. The next leader must concentrate every nerve and sinew on winning, but they must have faith in their ability to carry the country for reasonable revolution.

Unfortunately the members of the Labour mainstream are notoriously reticent about  discussing first principles. They find talk of “the vision thing” embarrassing and believe that the task which faces them is too obvious to need justification by any “fancy theories.” Yet there is a great body of work — by the likes of TH Green, RH Tawney. Anthony Crosland and John Rawls — which set out the theory of democratic socialism and descriptions of why it is especially relevant today – Joseph E Stiglitz’s The Price of Inequality and The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett — abound. The recovery of reason has to begin with Chukka Umuuna explaining the virtues of equality, Yvette Cooper describing Britain’s obligations to the developing world and Dan Jarvis defining the role of the state in protecting the weak against the strong. Or any of them talking about what they stand for instead of assuming that their convictions are taken for granted. The Daily Mail might not report their speeches, but moderate party members will treat the related Fabian Society pamphlets like water in the desert.

If, as they must, the reasonable majority of Labour MPs choose to stay and fight, they have to organise — inside the parliamentary party and, more importantly in the constituencies. I have spent much recent time insisting, to sceptical friends that the occupants of the opposition back benches are as competent and committed as were members of any of the governments, or shadow governments, in which I served. But I do not even try to argue that they are as active as my contemporaries once were in reclaiming the party. Success and survival depends on the constant demonstration that reasonable radicals still have a home in the Labour Party.  

One refugee from Corbyn’s original shadow cabinet assured me that like-minded Labour MPs do occasionally meet. When I asked what they discussed, I was told that they “wait for something to turn up.” But, something will only turn up if it is prepared and promoted by the men and women who have the courage and commitment to lead Labour out of the wilderness. The journey will be long and hard and there can be no guarantee of arrival at the desired destination. But those of us who believe that Labour can still provide the best prospect of a more equal society have to begin the trek toward the promised land — and we need to set out straight away.

Roy Hattersley was deputy leader of the Labour Party from 1983 to 1992.