Leave the jokes to the comedians

Nick Robinson's injection of sarky humour into news reporting is utterly misplaced. There is a place

Do you know what's wrong with the world? Do you know what has so degraded our politics? Satire, that's what. Or at least that's what I've been told. Time was, according to the Standard Model of Comedy History, when the population of this country did so much tugging of forelocks at the establishment and the ruling classes that they were practically bald. So much so, indeed, that up to the 1950s everyone had to wear hats. You can well imagine that when Beyond the Fringe came along in August 1960, there was a real sense of shock at its fairly damning portrayal of politicians and Our Betters.

Fifty years on, two generations have grown up with satire as a part of life, and nobody really wears hats any more, except children, jockeys and young bucks who don't realise that trilbies make them look like some Hoxton reimagining of Arthur Daley. There is no forelock tugging, and Peter Cook's take on the then prime minister, Harold Macmillan, seems like the kind of gentle ribbing reserved for retirement parties. That we see politicians as self-serving, cynical ne'er-do-wells who are to be neither trusted nor entertained is often blamed on our being so used to seeing them through the cracked and warped lens of satire.

When Alastair Campbell reviewed In the Loop for BBC2's Culture Show, he dismissed the film as boring. (But, it must be said, he did so with the kind of studied attempt at insouciance you might more usually associate with a 14-year-old boy calling a girl who's just rejected him "fat and ugly".)The film critic Mark Kermode disagreed, remarking that he himself had "great sympathy for anything that portrays politics as essentially venal and crass, because I think that, to a great extent, it is".

Campbell's response was interesting: "It upsets me that someone who seems to be quite an intelligent bloke could think that politics was venal and crass, when I can sit down and explain to you how politics has delivered most of the great things in the world and its history." Now, once you've wiped off the coffee you just spluttered all over this page in sheer incredulity at the brass neck of the man feigning to be unable to understand where anybody could possibly have got that impression, it is worth considering that, on this point, Campbell was right and Kermode wrong. But then I'm not at all sure that either In the Loop or The Thick of It, the BBC satire show from which the film was a spin-off, is aiming to imply anything quite so cynical.

There is crassness and venality aplenty both in real-life politics and in the show, but if The Thick of It has a central thesis at all, it is not that all politics is a charnel house and all politicians degraded boobs; it is more that those with a desire to do good are being defeated by the demands of the system in which they are obliged to operate. Hugh Abbot and Nicola Murray, the ministers in the show's fictional Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship, went into politics and accepted their posts in the hope of making a difference, but find themselves mired every day in the short-termist pastimes of politicking and PR. Wearied, defeated and depressed by it though they may be, they inevitably take the low road.

But even if The Thick of It were as entirely cynical as is sometimes supposed, even if it kept no light at all in its store of darkness, would it be fair to lay the blame at its feet for the negative way we view politics? It is, after all, a satire and satire's role is to prick the hot-air-filled bubbles above the mouths of politicians. Satire isn't supposed to be the primary way we consume politics; it's something extra, something to balance the serious, high-minded way politicians present themselves, their actions and their policies to us.

Satire today is simply doing what it has always done for the past half-century. The issue is not that satire is becoming harsher; rather, it is that what is sitting on the other end of the balance is becoming lighter. I don't mean to come across as all Jobs for the Boys, but a humorous approach to politics is all very well when in the hands of satirists and sketch-writers and those whose role it is to provide the punchlines. The problem comes when other elements try to harness it.

There are two main culprits here. The first is the politicians themselves. Where once politicians might have been accused of a rather starchy loftiness, now they are a little too ready to wear a different kind of red nose from the one you normally associate with MPs. I, for one, don't particularly want to see politicians on TV panel shows or otherwise attempting to show us their "lighter side", not least because, with notable exceptions, they are so bad at it.

The problem with politicos and their clumsy lunges at wit is that they generally lack subtlety in much the same way as, say, a one-man-band riding a beer keg full of knives down a stairwell does. Take Alan Duncan, whose attempts at effervescent bons mots on Have I Got News for You last year ended in the frankly embarrassing spectacle of an elected MP offhandedly suggesting he might murder a beauty queen.

To be fair to the politicians (and to Duncan), the reason they do this sort of thing is that they wish to appear "human" because we, the voters, appear obsessed with our politicians being "human". Yet, the moment they start displaying any kind of human frailty, we scream like a three-year-old denied CBeebies. As it happens, I don't particularly care about my politicians being "human"; I want them to be dedicated, understanding and good at what they do. If I want a joke, I'll buy a lolly. But they will persist, and the net result is that politicians become trivialised - and so, by extension, does politics.

The second, and to my mind far more blame-worthy, party is the news media. The reporting of politics on television and radio in this country is itself turning into a joke. It doesn't help that most TV bulletins give the impression that those involved have misunderstood The Day Today and taken it to be some sort of training video. The reporting is overlaid with a patina of knowing, matey awfulness, and every report seems to start from the standpoint that all the politicians involved are foolish and the reporter could have told them it would end up this way.

The chief, but by no means only, suspect is the BBC's Nick Robinson - a man whose style of failing to tell the news straight makes me want to bite chunks out of my television in despair. "Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear," he began one report, "what a week it's been for Gordon Brown." Do bear in mind, as he seems unwilling to do so, that he is not the sketch-writer for a sixth-form paper, but the BBC's political editor.

The injection of sarky humour into news reporting is utterly misplaced. I have seen Channel 4 News, that last hope of decent TV bulletins, run a report on a politician with speeded-up pictures and comedy piano music. I'm not joking. Sadly, Channel 4 is. These news bulletins are our first port of call for politics. They have a role in setting the tone and shaping the way we perceive our MPs and the processes in which they are involved. These are the places, along with the papers, where, in the past, the impressions of the politicians that satirists attacked were built up.

Now, with its wink-wink approach, the news itself is presenting us with reports that appear watermarked with the notion that politicians are self-serving, laughable idiots. And this, not satire, is where people come by their cynicism. By the time satire gets to them, the politicians are already laughing stocks. No wonder it looks harsh; we seem no longer to be pricking pomposity - that bubble was burst for us. Now we just seem to be sticking needles in for fun.

I am generalising here. There is some excellent reporting out there and it's not as if politicians aren't often worthy of scorn (cf: the expenses scandal). I'm also not suggesting that the news media should not attempt to hold them to account. But I do wish they'd be a little more straight-faced when they do it. There is a place for satire and it's . . . well, satire.

Chris Addison is a comedian and plays the character Oliver Reeder in "The Thick of It"

This article first appeared in the 02 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Politics and comedy