No, satire isn't destroying politics

Don't blame Ian Hislop for the lack of respect we show politicians.

Martin Kettle has an interesting piece on Comment Is Free today, arguing that "the current satirical onslaught against politics as a whole . . . amounts sometimes to monomania and increasingly to cliche". He argues that the relentless mockery of shows such as Have I Got News For You conditions the public to view all politicians as greedy, venal liars:

There is never any sign that [Ian] Hislop allows of exceptions; or that he has a political hero; or even, with the occasional honourable mention for Vince Cable, that there are politicians whom he respects. The impression he always gives is that today's politicians are uniformly unworthy of their inheritance, not to be compared with some previous golden age of statesmanlike effectiveness.

Kettle makes the valid point that one effect of this remorseless sledging is that the public drastically overestimate the number of MPs engaged in active skulduggery. And that's fair enough -- who doesn't feel a twinge of remorse when an audience member on Question Time berates some perfectly blameless backbencher about how "you're all at it" instead of letting them talk?

But I can't help feeling that it's not the tone of satire which has changed but its reach and frequency. There's a tempting idea that we live in the coarsest age ever, where people swear all the time, make rude jokes, show no respect and generally won't get off my lawn. But it's historically inaccurate, as a quick skim of Catullus or Juvenal (look up the translation of the phrase at the heart of this news story, if you dare) or Pope and Shelley will tell you.

Here's Alexander Pope on the death of Queen Caroline from an intestinal ulcer in 1737:

Here lies, wrapt up in forty thousand towels,
The only proof that c*** had bowels.

Try to imagine Carol Ann Duffy writing the same on the death of a member of our beloved monarchy and then argue that this is the "age of disrespect".

If anything has killed off the idea of "political heroes", it's surely the intrusiveness of our round-the-clock, ever-watching, public-interest-is-what-interests-the-public style of media. To appear heroic, you need to be distant, otherworldly, remote -- something that is very hard to achieve when the modern politician's every move is photographed, even while they're in chinos-and-cappucino holiday mode or picking their nose in the House of Commons.

Instead of a "straight" media providing material for satirists, low-level satire -- not very funny, not very pointed -- abounds. Martin Kettle comes close to acknowledging this when he says it "suits many in the media very well indeed to depict politicians as objects of contempt", but then seems to argue that satire is therefore the problem: "Plato wanted no place in his republic for artists -- and that probably included satirists, too."

But that's not quite right, is it? The problem isn't satire, with comedians putting a twist on the news; the problem is with the news itself. If journalists can't take politicians seriously, why should the public?

The final word goes to Rory Bremner, who was part of a fascinating FT roundtable on the subject last year:

One problem is that everyone is a satirist these days: a kind of weary, "come-off-it" cynicism pervades most news media, constantly blurring the line between news reporting and matey, "aren't-they-all-silly" editorialising, with the BBC's Nick Robinson one of the chief culprits. This, and politicians' behaviour, leaves satire (of our MPs, at least) almost redundant. Certainly if there is no respect, no deference, any more, much of the tension, the element of shock or outrage is dissipated. "You've got so much material these days!" people constantly say to me. Which may be true but also means that the reality is now beyond parody and, of itself, ridiculous.

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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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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