Why our parliament is literally beyond satire

Comedy shows are banned from using Commons footage.

Just last week, I was writing about the relative health of satire in the US and UK and now comes a rather striking example of something the Americans can do and we can't.

It's already a source of chagrin to many lovers of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart that More4 shows only a weekly round-up edition, rather than the four nightly episodes that are produced by the team. But this week, even the "Global Edition" didn't make it on to British TV screens -- and the 4OD webpage lists the online version as being "unavailable".

Blogger Chris Spyrou noticed it and brought it to the attention of the TV writer Graham Linehan, who asked Channel 4 about it. A tweet from Channel 4 Insider -- the broadcaster's official presence on Twitter -- called it "compliance problems".

The full reason, tweeted a short while later, was this: "We are prevented by parliamentary rules from broadcasting parliamentary proceedings in a comedic or satrical context."

The user @fiatpanda later uncovered this response to a Freedom of Information request from Channel 4, which stated:

Guidelines on the use of the pictures are less prescriptive. They do specify that no extracts from parliamentary proceedings may be used in comedy shows or other light entertainment, such as political satire. But broadcasters are allowed to include parliamentary items in magazine programmes containing musical or humourous features, provided the reports are kept separate.

So there you have it. The Americans can make fun of what happens in our parliament but we can't. And, in case you're wondering, I've seen what I assume is the "banned" clip and it's gentle ribbing at most -- and has something important to say about democracy and the accountability of elected officials.

In it, Jon Stewart expresses his admiration for David Cameron "taking on all comers" during the Commons questions on the hacking scandal, in contrast to the rather anaemic questions that American leaders face.

After showing Ed Miliband, Ann Clwyd, Tom Watson and others giving Cameron some tough words, Jon Stewart remarks: "That's awesome! That's your CSPAN? That's f***ing awesome . . . I know how I'd respond to that kind of questioning [he cowers]. I bet the Prime Minister never had a chance!"

The tape then cuts back to the Commons, where Cameron tells the House his opponents were clearly "hoping for some great allegation to add to their fevered conspiracy theories. I'm just disappointed for them that they didn't get one".

After a couple more clips of a bullish PM, Jon Stewart notes: "England is awesome. That guy killed it. Remember when someone yelled "You lie!" at our State of the Union and everyone was like 'What has become of us as a people?' This is the Prime Minister of England, down in the pit, taking on all comers . . . This guy cut short a foreign trip for the privilege of it."

What US politics needs, Stewart concludes, is for Americans to "start drinking some motherf***ing tea and eating some motherf***ing finger sandwiches".

To follow Helen on Twitter, click here.

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.

GETTY IMAGES/LIFE IMAGES COLLECTION
Show Hide image

Back to the future – mankind’s new ideas that aren’t new at all

Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas by Steven Poole reviewed.

When Steven Poole writes a book review, he likes to lie to himself. His only conscious decision is to jot down a few notes as the deadline approaches. There is no pressure to think deep thoughts, he tells himself, or to reach the required word count. Then invariably, in a few hours, he has written the entire review. This happens time and again. No matter how many times he convinces himself he is merely jotting and thinking, the result is a finished article.

Human beings are extraordinarily good at deceiving themselves and possibly never more so than when they think that they have had a new idea, as Poole makes clear in this fascinating compendium of new ideas that aren’t new at all. He digs deep into subjects as various as cosmology, economics, health care and bioethics to show that, as the writer of Ecclesiastes put it (long before Poole), “There is nothing new under the sun.” This is demonstrated in the re-emergence of ideas such as therapeutic psychedelic drugs, inherited traits that aren’t programmed into the genome, cognitive behavioural therapy, getting our protein from insects, and the multiverse.

Poole explores these propositions deftly enough, but they are not what interest him here. Rather, his subject is the way that we have seen them all before. He ties together what he concedes is a “highly selective snapshot of the looping evolution of ideas” with the observation that: “Any culture that thinks the past is irrelevant is one in which future invention threatens to stall.” Originality, he argues, is overrated.

The book might be something of a downer for those who like to gaze at “progress” with wide-eyed admiration. The starkest takeaway is that we are clearly hopeless at putting good ideas to work. In his discussion of artificial intelligence, for instance, Poole mentions the emerging idea of a universal basic income, which is likely to become a necessary innovation as robots take over many of the least demanding tasks of the human workforce. Yet he traces it back to 1796, when Thomas Paine first published his pamphlet Agrarian Justice.

Maybe this tells us something about the limits of the brain. It has always innovated, thought through its situations and created solutions. But those solutions can only be drawn from a limited pool of possibilities. Hence we get the same ideas occurring ­inside human skulls for millennia and they are not always presented any better for the passing of time. Richard Dawkins and his ilk provide a salient example, as Poole points out: “Virtually none of the debating points in the great new atheism struggles of the 21st century . . . would have been unfamiliar to medieval monks, who by and large conducted the argument on a more sophisticated and humane level.”

So, perhaps we should start to ask ourselves why so many proposed solutions remain unimplemented after what seem to be thousand-year development programmes. It is only through such reflection on our own thinking that we will overcome our barriers to progress.

Sometimes the barriers are mere prejudice or self-interest. After the Second World War, Grace Hopper, a computer scientist in the US navy, created a language that allowed a computer to be programmed in English, French or German. “Her managers were aghast,” Poole writes. It was “an American computer built in blue-belt Pennsylvania” – so it simply had to be programmed in English. “Hopper had to promise management that from then on the program would only accept English input.”

It is worth noting that Hopper was also a victim of postwar sexism. In 1960 she and several other women participated in a project to create COBOL, the computing language. Critics said there was no way that such a “female-dominated process” could end in anything worthwhile. Those critics were
wrong. By the turn of the century, 80 per cent of computer coding was written in COBOL. But this is another unlearned lesson. A survey in 2013 showed that women make up just 11 per cent of software developers. A swath of the population is missing from one of our most creative endeavours. And we are missing out on quality. Industry experiments show that women generally write better code. Unfortunately, the gatekeepers only accept it as better when they don’t know it was written by a woman.

Solving the technology industry’s gender problems will be a complex undertaking. Yet it is easy to resolve some long-standing difficulties. Take that old idea of providing a universal basic income. It appears to be a complex economic issue but experimental projects show that the answer can be as simple as giving money to the poor.

We know this because the non-profit organisation GiveDirectly has done it. It distributed a basic income to an entire community and the “innovation” has proved remarkably effective in providing the means for people to lift themselves out of poverty. Projects in Kenya, Brazil and Uganda have made the same discovery. As Poole notes, even the Economist, that “bastion of free-market economics”, was surprised and impressed. It said of the scheme: “Giving money directly to poor people works surprisingly well.” You can almost hear the exclamation “Who knew?” – and the slapping sound of history’s facepalm.

Michael Brooks’s books include “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise” (Profile)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt