Why our parliament is literally beyond satire

Comedy shows are banned from using Commons footage.

Just last week, I was writing about the relative health of satire in the US and UK and now comes a rather striking example of something the Americans can do and we can't.

It's already a source of chagrin to many lovers of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart that More4 shows only a weekly round-up edition, rather than the four nightly episodes that are produced by the team. But this week, even the "Global Edition" didn't make it on to British TV screens -- and the 4OD webpage lists the online version as being "unavailable".

Blogger Chris Spyrou noticed it and brought it to the attention of the TV writer Graham Linehan, who asked Channel 4 about it. A tweet from Channel 4 Insider -- the broadcaster's official presence on Twitter -- called it "compliance problems".

The full reason, tweeted a short while later, was this: "We are prevented by parliamentary rules from broadcasting parliamentary proceedings in a comedic or satrical context."

The user @fiatpanda later uncovered this response to a Freedom of Information request from Channel 4, which stated:

Guidelines on the use of the pictures are less prescriptive. They do specify that no extracts from parliamentary proceedings may be used in comedy shows or other light entertainment, such as political satire. But broadcasters are allowed to include parliamentary items in magazine programmes containing musical or humourous features, provided the reports are kept separate.

So there you have it. The Americans can make fun of what happens in our parliament but we can't. And, in case you're wondering, I've seen what I assume is the "banned" clip and it's gentle ribbing at most -- and has something important to say about democracy and the accountability of elected officials.

In it, Jon Stewart expresses his admiration for David Cameron "taking on all comers" during the Commons questions on the hacking scandal, in contrast to the rather anaemic questions that American leaders face.

After showing Ed Miliband, Ann Clwyd, Tom Watson and others giving Cameron some tough words, Jon Stewart remarks: "That's awesome! That's your CSPAN? That's f***ing awesome . . . I know how I'd respond to that kind of questioning [he cowers]. I bet the Prime Minister never had a chance!"

The tape then cuts back to the Commons, where Cameron tells the House his opponents were clearly "hoping for some great allegation to add to their fevered conspiracy theories. I'm just disappointed for them that they didn't get one".

After a couple more clips of a bullish PM, Jon Stewart notes: "England is awesome. That guy killed it. Remember when someone yelled "You lie!" at our State of the Union and everyone was like 'What has become of us as a people?' This is the Prime Minister of England, down in the pit, taking on all comers . . . This guy cut short a foreign trip for the privilege of it."

What US politics needs, Stewart concludes, is for Americans to "start drinking some motherf***ing tea and eating some motherf***ing finger sandwiches".

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Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

Emma Moore as Ruth Ellis
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Rasping old cassettes bring new depth to a familiar true crime tale in BBC Four’s The Ruth Ellis Files

Plus, a BBC Two documentary about Brixton reggae producer Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin.

I thought I knew the Ruth Ellis story inside out: when I was writing my book about women’s lives in the 1950s, her name came up so often – almost daily, it fell like a shadow over my desk – I finally had to give in and take a detour, reading everything about her that I could find, for all that she wasn’t part of my plan (if you’re interested too, and want a primer, I recommend A Fine Day for a Hanging by Carol Ann Lee). But perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps I didn’t really know anything at all, for I never once felt even half so haunted in the British Library as I did the other night in the moments after I finished watching Gillian Pachter’s three-part documentary series, The Ruth Ellis Files: A Very British Crime Story (13-15 March, 9pm).

It wasn’t that Pachter, an American filmmaker who specialises in true crime, had vast quantities of new information; the thrust of her investigation had to do with the part played by Ellis’s other lover, Desmond Cussen, in the murder of David Blakely, the crime for which she alone was hanged on the morning of 13 July, 1955, at Holloway Prison, north London. Pachter suggested, like others before her, that Cussen provided Ellis with the gun with which she shot her violent boyfriend, and that he should therefore have been tried as an accessory.

Nor were her long-winded films, so deeply in love with their own processes, without their irritations, from the tonally jarring film clips she insisted on using to illustrate situations for which she had no images, to her bizarre and utterly pointless desire to recreate the pathetic last bedsit of Ellis’s son, Andre Hornby, who committed suicide in 1982, aged 37. Faced with certain expert “witnesses”, among them a couple of retired coppers who couldn’t have been loving their moment in the sun more if they’d been slicked with Ambre Solaire, Pachter was never anything less than wide-eyed and credulous.

What she did have, though, were some rasping old cassettes, the complicated provenance of which would take far too long to describe here. And so it was that we heard the voices of Cussen and Ellis discussing Blakely; of Hornby gently interrogating Christmas Humphreys, the counsel for the prosecution at his mother’s trial, whom he tracked down in the months before his suicide; and even of Blakely, loudly toasting the company at a party. She made maximum use of these tapes, playing them repeatedly, and it wasn’t hard to see why; if the words sometimes meant relatively little (“he’s just a little drip… a cheapskate… a skunk…” Ellis said of Blakely, perhaps only telling Cussen what he wanted to hear), the voices nevertheless spoke volumes, whole worlds conjured up in their strangulated vowels, their urgent hesitations.

Here was Ellis, a working-class woman, speaking in a painful, put-on RP. Here was Hornby, his life utterly destroyed by his mother killing the man who was then the closest thing he had to a father, trying desperately hard not to sound mad (“she lived on the borderlines of insanity,” he said of Ellis, possibly unaware that it takes one to know one). And here was Blakely, so obliviously chipper, his voice all dry gin and privilege. Ellis’s story has always reeked of Raymond Chandler: the racing driver lover, his floppy-haired beauty destroyed by bullets; that blonde hair, which she determinedly bleached again in prison ahead of her trial. Hearing them, though, all that fell away. What messes and muddles people get into. What calamities hit them, head on, like meteorites.

After a ten-year absence, Molly Dineen has returned with a documentary about Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin (12 March, 9pm), a Brixton reggae producer. Three years in the making, it included some remarkable events in the life of this local celebrity, among them his conviction for money laundering; Dread’s dreads, uncut since he was 14, now reach to his feet and deserve a film of their own. But though I admired its intimacy, the warm and effective way Dineen mined his universe, in the end there was something self-indulgent about it, too. Like Blacker’s barber, her editor was, alas, seemingly surplus to requirements. 

The Ruth Ellis Files (BBC Four)
Being Blacker (BBC Two)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game