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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SRSLY #71: Swing Time / The Edge of Seventeen / Maggie’s Plan

On the pop culture podcast this week: Zadie Smith’s novel Swing Time, teen movie The Edge of Seventeen and the 2015 film Maggie’s Plan.

This is SRSLY, the pop culture podcast from the New Statesman. Here, you can find links to all the things we talk about in the show as well as a bit more detail about who we are and where else you can find us online.

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SRSLY is hosted by Caroline Crampton and Anna Leszkiewicz, the NS’s assistant editor and editorial assistant. We’re on Twitter as @c_crampton and @annaleszkie, where between us we post a heady mixture of Serious Journalism, excellent gifs and regularly ask questions J K Rowling needs to answer.

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The Links

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

The book.

The New Statesman review.

The Edge of Seventeen

The trailer.

The episode where we discuss Paper Towns.

Maggie’s Plan

The trailer.

For next week

Anna is watching Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

If you’d like to talk to us about the podcast or make a suggestion for something we should read or cover, you can email srslypod[at]gmail.com.

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See you next week!

PS If you missed #70, check it out here.