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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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.