Come clean, Jon Stewart: you're an activist, journalist and a comedian

<em>The Daily Show</em> host is beginning to face up to the fact that he is more than a comic - whet

When I suggested earlier this week that Jon Stewart had been put on the spot during an interview on Fox with Chris Wallace, commenters - and indeed colleagues - argued that I had read the interview wrong. I thought Stewart looked flustered when Wallace argued that Stewart relies too much on the "I'm a comedian" defence. They argued that Stewart's response - "When did I say that I am only a comedian? I said I am comedian first" - showed that Wallace's criticism was false.

I still don't think it did, but it does reveal that something has changed in Stewart's physche. He's finally coming round to the fact that he is more than a comedian, whether he wants to be or not.

Until that interview, Stewart had always implied that because The Daily Show was a comedy show on a comedy channel, it shouldn't be taken that seriously. Watch the video of him on CROSSFIRE, or previous interviews on Fox. Indeed, moments before the "comedian first" comment in the Wallace interview, Stewart said: "I'm not an activist. I'm a comedian."

That is hogwash. There's a simple reason why some people think Stewart is an activist: he does things like organise mass rallies in the middle of Washington DC. Indeed, here's how Stewart described the "Rally to Restore Sanity" when he went on Fox in September last year:

The folks that I see in my gigs that I go out to are real Americans, plumbers and such. They tell me that they don't feel represented by the extremities they see on things like Fox News and other things like that. They say the real voice of the people has been muted by the extremists, that the loudest voices are the ones that seem to carry the day. So what I'm hearing is they want to feel a catharsis that they are not alone, that they're also represented. So that's why we are doing it. We are trying to find that thin sliver of America between pinhead and patriot.

That, to me, sounds like activism, rather than comedy.

Stewart is a comedian, but a lot of what The Daily Show does is journalism - with jokes. Stewart, finally, seems to have accepted that he is not "only a comedian". This is a step forward. Stewart needs to accept that he is an activist and a journalist, and then The Daily Show can get on with being the best news-based show on television.

That Stewart's show is regularly cited as one of the most trusted news sources in the US is not just evidence of the US's lousy news culture; it is an indication of the show's strength. The Daily Show investigates and digs out hypocrisy among both the media and politicians better than many news channel and newspapers. There is no reason, then, that The Daily Show can't be both a news show and a comedy show. Good satire informs and entertains.

Whether he wants to be or not, however, Jon Stewart and The Daily Show are being yanked from the cushy, cocoon of "comedy" into "infotainment". This is not necessarily a bad thing. In Britain, Private Eye straddles the spheres of comedy and journalism perfectly. Why can't The Daily Show?

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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution