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"My sympathies have always been with the bullied rather than the bully."

Graham Linehan on comedy writing, politics and Twitter.

When you think about the current state of TV comedy, do you feel optimistic or pessimistic?

I'm never pessimistic because something always comes along. Every dry period gets shaken up by something like The Office. In fact, it could be said that dry periods create programmes like The Office, which often start as rejections of the current fashion. But they're black swan events, so when everyone tries to copy them they just create a new, dreary status quo to rebel against. I can't bear the mock-doc format now.

How do you personally decide if a joke goes too far or is too cruel?

I love the challenge of covering a taboo subject in a way that can't offend anyone. My favourite comedies do this -- the famous example is the Seinfeld masturbation episode -- and I'm always on the lookout for things that, at first glance, seem impossible to transpose to a comedy setting. I did the episode about Armin Meiwes, the German cannibal, on The IT Crowd because, horrible though the facts of the case were, I heard there was a previous guy who chickened out, so he and Armin went to see Oceans Eleven together instead. I found that hilarious and oddly sweet, so I thought I could do something with it.

Also, Twitter provides a means by which the people attacked in a particular joke can easily get in touch with you. These days, I think: "If the person I was making fun of contacted me, would I be able to defend it?" If the answer is yes, I go ahead. If the answer is no, I ask myself if I like the person. If the answer to that is no, I go ahead.

You said in Mustard magazine that you find it hard to write female comic characters. Do you think audiences still have trouble accepting that women can be funny?

Absolutely not. There may be writers out there who blame their own shortcomings on women but I hope I never become one of them. It's just a little more effort for me to get inside a woman's skin. One thing I have always tried to do is make the female characters as venal, corrupt and silly as the men. Being equally hard on my characters, male or female, is my pathetic little contribution to feminism.

You were a journalist in Dublin. Were you good at it -- and did you enjoy it?

Also here in London, for Select magazine. I enjoyed it very much but I was never a proper journalist. I would write humorous pieces and try and make my subject fit them, rather than the other way round. I was so young. I shudder when I read any of that stuff now. In fact, I shudder when I read things I wrote a month ago.

Are there any journalists you admire?

Plenty! Too many to list! I think the Guardian under Rusbridger has been amazing. I think the Guardian's work over the last decade, especially with WikiLeaks and phone-hacking, has been extraordinary. Literally world-changing. I love the way people like Ben Goldacre give you not just the story but the tools to understand the story and the issues and processes behind it. As a bonus, the Guardian understands what engaging with readers really means and the paper is all the better for it.

How do you think journalism should be funded once print doesn't pay any more -- advertising, paywalls or something else?
Paywalls seem a typical old-worldy example of trying to remake the web in the image of something less efficient, less useful, less shareable. I don't see it working long term. Until people stop resisting the fact that the world has changed utterly, this transition period is going to be longer than it should be and everyone will suffer. I don't have any bright ideas on how to pay for journalism -- if I had, I'd be writing this from my yacht -- but I do know that people will always want it and if you give them a convenient way to pay for it, they will.

You often call out media organisations for their bad behaviour. Are you ever afraid it might damage your career?

I wasn't until now.

How much has Twitter changed your day to day life?

It has totally transformed my life. It has given it an extra dimension and I would miss it terribly were it to disappear. I have daily conversations with people from all walks of life, whom I would otherwise never have known -- human rights lawyers, Egyptian IT Crowd fans who protested in Tahrir Square, policemen, Tories (yes, even Tories!), journalists . . . If ever I see something I like, I immediately find out whether the writer is on Twitter and if so, I'm able to send a note of thanks. A lot of friendships with people I hugely admire have started that way. I get very frustrated when people don't see what a miracle it is. The famous six degrees of separation has been reduced to zero and every day we're feeling the repercussions of that.

Do you think that Twitter-led campaigns -- such as #welovethenhs -- are effective at swaying public opinion and at motivating people to action? Or is Twitter, as its critics suggest, just a cosy lefty echo chamber?

Ask the News of The World. Or Carter Ruck. Or Jan Moir. There wasn't anything cosy about those campaigns. And they got results. I doubt Jan Moir will be tut-tutting the recently deceased any time soon and as for the News Of The World . . .

#welovethenhs wasn't so much a campaign as an attempt to fight propaganda with propaganda. I wrote the first tweet in a Starbucks while waiting for a coffee and a few months later Gordon Brown had inserted the phrase into a speech. That was pretty dizzying but I think the fact that it was so easily co-opted by politicians probably ended up being a fault rather than a feature.

As for the left-wing echo chamber . . . Twitter is made of individuals, so it can't be left or right any more than an individual is purely left or right. There is a problem, however, in that there are a lot of very clever people out there who have decided for whatever reason that they don't want to have anything to do with the internet. Their absence is a problem. They're being left out of the conversation and the conversation is the poorer for it.

You've talked about playing video games (your line about being a dick in Call of Juarez still makes me laugh). Do you think they would be an interesting medium to write for?

Yes. In fact, I did a little work for Little Big Planet 2. It's difficult though, because games often serve the gameplay rather than the story and the stories suffer terribly as a result. Some games with a narrative are so poorly written that I just can't play them. Alan Wake, Red Dead Redemption, even LA Noire . . . I just couldn't bring myself to listen to another good actor delivering terrible lines.

How would you describe your politics?

My sympathies have always been with the bullied rather than the bully so I guess I'm left-wing. I do believe that the internet is giving us a chance to move on from these limiting definitions, though.

You were critical of the Today programme's "dishonest, binary style of debate". But is there a place for adversarial debate in politics/journalism -- for example, Prime Minister's Questions?

Prime Minister's Questions . . . Is there a less edifying spectacle? Point-scoring. A football match. Not even a football match -- the early computer game Pong would be a better example. PMQs might be many things, but I only tune in expecting to see the government fighting a rearguard action. You never expect to see anyone getting shit done.

As for the Today programme, there is absolutely a place for this kind of debate, but it shouldn't be the default mode. That's lazy. It's almost a way of farming out the job of research to a third party. And in my case, it led to what I still think is a breach of ethics in that the only way they could get me on the program was by giving me a false brief. I was told in an email I'd be talking about "the challenges and excitements of adapting a film for the stage" and that was just a flat-out lie. Michael Billington had been briefed accurately because he was working from a few pages of notes, he had been allowed to prepare. My anger stemmed mainly from the fact that I hadn't been afforded the same courtesy. They still haven't apologised for it.

Do you vote?

Yes. It's good for us to feel powerless once every four years.

Is there anything you'd like to forget?

I was very bad at being single. Lots of regrets there.

Was or is there a plan for your career?

No, I just float from project to project.

Are we all doomed?

How many more times can we read "It was the hottest summer on record" before the newspaper bursts into flames in our hands?

Follow Graham Linehan on Twitter: @Glinner

Defining Moments

1968 Born in Dublin
1994 Begins writing for TV with The Day Today. Later writes for Brass Eye as well as Black Books, Big Train, Hippies and Jam
1995 His co-creation Father Ted premieres
2006 Launches his "old-fashioned sitcom" The IT Crowd, filmed with a live audience
2009 Launches Twitter campaign to support the National Health Service
2011 Perpetrates Twitter hoax that Osama Bin Laden was a fan of The IT Crowd

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.

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When it comes to responding to Islamic State, there is no middle ground

If Britain has a declared interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria, it is neither honourable nor viable to let others intervene on our behalf.

Even before the brutal terrorist attacks in Paris, British foreign policy was approaching a crossroads. Now it is time, in the words of Barack Obama, addressing his fellow leaders at the G20 Summit in Turkey on 16 November, “to step up with the resources that this fight demands”, or stand down.

The jihadist threat metastasises, and international order continues to unravel at an alarming rate. A Russian civilian charter plane is blown out of the sky over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, killing 224 people, most of them returning from holiday, and the various offshoots of Islamic State bare their teeth in a succession of brutal attacks in France, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey and further afield. Our enemies are emboldened and our friends want to know to what extent we stand with them. The UK can no longer afford to postpone decisions that it has evaded since the Commons vote of August 2013, in which the government was defeated over the question of joining US-led air strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime following a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. MPs’ continued introspection is on the verge of becoming both irresponsible and morally questionable. There is no fence left to sit on.

On Sunday night, two days after the Paris attacks, the French – with US support – launched a series of bombing raids against Islamic State targets in Raqqa. With much more to come, the choice facing this country may not be easier but it is certainly clearer. Britain must determine whether it wants to be a viable and genuine partner in the fight against Islamic State, and in the long-term efforts to bring an end to the assorted evils of the Syrian civil war; or whether we are content to sit on the sidelines and cheer on former team-mates without getting our knees dirty. We can join our two most important allies – France and the United States, at the head of a coalition involving a number of Arab and other European states – in confronting a threat that potentially is as grave to us as it is to France, and certainly more dangerous than it is to the US. Alternatively, we can gamble that others will do the work for us, keep our borders tighter than ever, double down on surveillance (because that will certainly be one of the prices to pay) and hope that the Channel and the security services keep us comparatively safe. There is no fantasy middle ground, where we can shirk our share of the burden on the security front while leading the rest of the world in some sort of diplomatic breakthrough in Syria; or win a reprieve from the jihadists for staying out of Syria (yet hit them in Iraq), through our benevolence in opening the door to tens of thousands of refugees, or by distancing ourselves from the ills of Western foreign policy.

That the international community – or what is left of it – has not got its act together on Syria over the past three years has afforded Britain some space to indulge its scruples. Nonetheless, even before the Paris attacks, the matter was coming to the boil again. A vote on the expansion of air operations against Islamic State has been mooted since the start of this year, but was put on the back burner because of the May general election. The government has treated parliament with caution since its much-discussed defeat in the House in summer 2013. The existing policy – of supporting coalition air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq but not Syria – is itself an outgrowth of an awkward compromise between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, an attempt to reverse some of the damage done by the 2013 vote in parliament.

The Conservatives have waited to see where the ground lies in a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party before attempting to take the issue back before the Commons. Labour pleaded for more time when Corbyn was elected, but there is no sign that the Labour leader is willing to shift in his hostility to any form of intervention. More significantly, he has now ruled out Labour holding a free vote on the matter.

If anything, the coalition of Little Englanders, anti-interventionists and anti-Americans in the House of Commons seems to have dug its trenches deeper. This leaves the Prime Minister with few options. One is to use the Royal Prerogative to announce that an ally has been attacked, and that we will stand with her in joining attacks against Islamic State in Syria. The moment for this has probably already passed, though the prerogative might still be invoked if Isis scores a direct hit against the UK. Yet even then, there would be problems with this line. A striking aspect of the killing of 30 Britons in the June attacks in Sousse, Tunisia, is just how little domestic political impact it seems to have made.

Another option for Cameron is to try to make one final effort to win a parliamentary majority, but this is something that Tory whips are not confident of achieving. The most likely scenario is that he will be forced to accept a further loss of the UK’s leverage and its standing among allies. Co-operation will certainly come on the intelligence front but this is nothing new. Meanwhile, the government will be forced to dress up its position in as much grand diplomatic verbiage as possible, to obfuscate the reality of the UK’s diminishing influence.

Already, speaking at the G20 Summit, the Prime Minister emphasised the need to show MPs a “whole plan for the future of Syria, the future of the region, because it is perfectly right to say that a few extra bombs and missiles won’t transform the situation”. In principle, it is hard to argue with this. But no such plan will emerge in the short term. The insistence that Assad must go may be right but it is the equivalent of ordering the bill at a restaurant before you have taken your seat. In practice, it means subcontracting out British national security to allies (such as the US, France and Australia) who are growing tired of our inability to pull our weight, and false friends or enemies (such as Russia and Iran), who have their own interests in Syria which do not necessarily converge with our own.

One feature of the 2013 Syria vote was the government’s failure to do the required groundwork in building a parliamentary consensus. Whips have spent the summer scouting the ground but to no avail. “The Labour Party is a different organisation to that which we faced before the summer,” Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, has said. It is ironic, then, that the Prime Minister has faced strongest criticism from the Labour benches. “Everyone wants to see nations planning for increased stability in the region beyond the military defeat of the extremists,” says John Woodcock, the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party defence committee, “but after two years of pussy-footing around, this just smacks of David Cameron playing for time when he should be showing leadership.”

The real story is not the distance between the two front benches but the divisions within both parties. There are as many as 30 Conservative MPs said to be willing to rebel if parliament is asked to vote for joining the coalition against Islamic State in Syria. It seems that the scale of the Paris attacks has not changed their position. A larger split in the Labour ranks also seems likely. Even before Paris, there were rumoured to be roughly 50 MPs ready to defy their leader on this question.


At first, in the wake of last week’s attacks, it seemed as if the Prime Minister might force the issue. To this end, he began the G20 in Turkey with a bilateral meeting with President Putin. His carefully chosen words before and after that discussion, in which he was much more emollient about Moscow’s role, showed the extent to which he was prepared to adapt to the changing situation. Cameron hoped that if he could show progress in building an international coalition on the diplomatic front, that might just give him enough to get over the line in a parliamentary vote.

This new approach has not had the desired effect. At the time of writing, the government believes it is too risky to call another vote in the short term. It calculates another defeat would hugely diminish Britain’s standing in the world. In truth, the government was already swimming upstream. On 29 October, the Conservative-
dominated Commons foreign affairs select committee, chaired by Crispin Blunt, released a report on the extension of British military operations into Syria, in anticipation of government bringing forward a parliamentary vote on the question. The report recommended that Britain should avoid further involvement unless a series of questions could be answered about exit strategy and long-term goals. The bar was set deliberately high, to guard against any further involvement (even the limited option of joining the existing coalition undertaking air strikes against IS in Syria).

The most flimsy of the five objections to further intervention in the report was that it will somehow diminish the UK’s leverage as an impartial arbiter and potential peacemaker. This is based on an absurd overestimation of the UK as some sort of soft-power saviour, valued by all parties for its impartiality in Middle Eastern affairs. Britain cannot hope to have any influence on policy if it is always last to sign up while others put their lives on the line. As so often in the past, what masquerades as tough-minded “realpolitik” is nothing of the sort. It is just another post-facto rationale for inaction.

Although it is sometimes said that Britain has yet to recover from the consequences of the invasion of Iraq, the committee report had a retro, 1990s feel. Many of the objections raised to burden-sharing in Syria were the same as those raised against humanitarian intervention in the Balkans two decades ago, when Blunt was working as special adviser to Michael Rifkind as defence and foreign secretary, and the UK was at the forefront of non-intervention. Likewise, two of the committee’s Labour members, Ann Clwyd and Mike Gapes, were veterans of the other side of that debate, and strong supporters of the Nato intervention in Kosovo in 1999. They expressed their dissent from the report’s conclusions but were voted down by their Conservative and SNP fellow committee members. “Non-intervention also has consequences,” said Gapes when he broke rank. “We should not be washing our hands and saying, ‘It’s too difficult.’”

Polling figures have shown majority public support for air strikes against IS since the spate of gruesome public executions that began last year, but nothing seems to change the calculus of the rump of anti-interventionist MPs.

All this promises an uncertain future for British foreign policy. On 6 November, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, suggested that the UK’s existing position, of joining the coalition in Iraq but stopping at the borders of Syria, is “morally indefensible”. The killing of Mohammed Emwazi, aka “Jihadi John”, by a US predator drone on 12 November demonstrates what he meant. Emwazi was a Briton who was responsible for the beheading of British and American citizens, as well as countless Syrians. While the UK government was closely involved in that operation – and has previously used the justification of “self-defence” to “take out” targets in Syria – such are the restrictions placed upon it that we are forced to ask our allies to conduct potentially lethal operations (which are in our core national interests) on our behalf. The very act of “self-defence” is subcontracted out once again.

How long can this last when Islamic State poses a much greater threat to the UK than it does to the US? There is an issue of responsibility, too, with hundreds of British citizens fighting for and with Islamic State who clearly pose a grave danger to other states.


The very notion that Britain should play an expansive international role is under attack from a pincer movement from both the left and the right. There are two forms of “Little Englanderism” that have made a resurgence in recent years. On the left, this is apparent in the outgrowth of a world-view that sees no role for the military, and holds that the UK is more often than not on the wrong side in matters of international security, whether its opponent is Russia, Iran, the IRA or Islamic State. The second, and arguably just as influential, is the Little Englanderism of the right, which encompasses a rump of Tory backbenchers and Ukip. This is a form of neo-mercantilism, a foreign policy based on trade deals and the free movement of goods that regards multilateralism, international institutions and any foreign military intervention with great suspicion, as a costly distraction from the business of filling our pockets.

The time is ripe for long-term, hard-headed and unsentimental thinking about Britain’s global role. The country is not served well by the impression of British “decline” and “retreat” that has gained ground in recent times; and it is no safer for it, either. Given how quickly the security and foreign policy environment is changing, the publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review in the coming week, alongside an update of the National Security Strategy, is likely to raise more questions than it answers. The officials responsible for its drafting do not have an easy brief, and news forecasting is a thankless task. Strategic vision and leadership must come from our elected politicians.

For all the talk of British decline, we are still one of the five wealthiest nations in the world. What we do matters, particularly at moments when our friends are under attack. However, until a new broad consensus emerges between the mainstream Labour and Conservative positions on foreign policy, the Little England coalition will continue to have the casting vote.

Syria continues to bleed profusely and the blood seeps deeper into different countries. There will be no political solution to the civil war there for the foreseeable future; to pretend that there is a hidden diplomatic solution is to wish to turn the clock back to 2011, when that might have been possible. Nor is the security situation any easier to deal with. A few hours before the attacks in Paris began, President Obama gave an interview in which he argued that he had successfully “contained” Islamic State. For the wider Middle East and Europe, that is simply not the case. Now, France will escalate its campaign, and the US will do more. Russia already has troops on the ground and will most likely send reinforcements.

The war in Syria is becoming more complicated and even more dangerous. The best that can be hoped for is that the Syrian ulcer can be cauterised. This will be achieved through the blunting of Islamic State, simultaneous pressure on Assad, and the creation of more safe places for Syrians. All roads are littered with difficulties and dangers. Yet, in the face of this ugly reality, is Britain to signal its intention to do less as every other major actor – friend and foe alike – does more? If we have a declared national interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria – both because of the growing terrorist threat and because of the huge flow of refugees – then it is neither honourable nor viable to let others take care of it on our behalf.

John Bew is an NS contributing writer. His new book, “Realpolitik: a History”, is newly published by Oxford University Press

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror