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13 April 2023

Is the BBC afraid of satire?

After a succession of programme cancellations, fear is spreading that the corporation doesn’t think it can afford to make fun of the Tories.

By William Turvill

“Reports coming in – oh, apparently Mock the Week has been cancelled because the BBC’s been taken hostage by a bunch of miserable Tory c**ts who can’t take a f*****g joke.” This line, delivered by the Irish comedian Ed Byrne last October in one of the final episodes of the soon-to-be-axed Mock the Week, drew a hearty laugh and rapturous applause from the show’s studio audience. Soon after, Mock the Week’s 17-year run on BBC Two came to an end despite almost 50,000 fans signing a petition pleading with the broadcaster to reverse its decision.

The Mash Report, another BBC Two show that satirised news, was dropped in 2020. Last month the BBC decommissioned Frankie Boyle’s New World Order – he tweeted that this was “not surprising in the current climate” – and now The Ranganation, hosted by Romesh Ranganathan, is thought to be on the cusp of cancellation as well. As the Times reported last month, the 33-year-old Have I Got News for You is the last satirical comedy show standing on BBC television. 

Six months on from Ed Byrne’s joke-cum-conspiracy theory, his satirical suggestion – that the BBC has been overrun by thin-skinned Tories who don’t like being lampooned on panel shows – is gaining some traction. In a tweet that linked to the Times’s report on The Ranganation and Have I Got News for You last week, Sathnam Sanghera, an author and columnist for the newspaper, suggested the BBC had taken “another step towards being the broadcasting arm of the Conservative Party”. 

Are Byrne and Sanghera right? Has the BBC been cowed into ditching satirical programmes – bar the hugely popular and effectively uncuttable Have I Got News for You – by a Conservative government that’s overly sensitive to criticism? It’s easy to understand why this theory has currency. The corporation’s two most senior figures, the director-general Tim Davie and its chairman Richard Sharp, both have ties with the Conservative Party (Davie once ran as a Tory council candidate in Hammersmith, while Sharp is a former Tory donor whose relationship with Boris Johnson has come under scrutiny). Both have repeatedly identified impartiality as a key area for improvement at the BBC. And news comedy programmes naturally tend to target the ruling party – meaning the Conservatives have had to endure 13 years of relentless mockery.

[See also: Mutiny at the BBC: “Almost everyone has left. No one does any journalism”]

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In some ways, it is plausible that the BBC, already feeling the budgetary constraints of a Tory government licence-fee freeze, would do what it can to appease the government. Jon Thoday, the managing director of Avalon Television, which makes the Russell Howard Hour for Sky and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver for HBO, told me: “In a world where broadcasters feel challenged, ie the BBC about their licence fee and their funding, it’s hard not to think they are worried about anything that would upset a government that effectively has cut their budget.” But he suggested the BBC, and other broadcasters, probably overestimate the ability of satire to offend politicians, who are likely to be far more focused on news and current affairs coverage. He added that broadcasters’ reluctance to embrace satire is strange because, in his experience, there remains great audience interest. “There’s no question there’s an appetite for it,” he added. “Which makes you wonder why the broadcasters aren’t doing it.”

Dan Patterson, the boss of Angst Productions and one of the co-creators of Mock the Week, said of the recent run of panel show decommissions: “I can see that it is grist to the mill of conspiracy theorists.” But he added that he had “no evidence” that “Conservative pressure” had contributed to the BBC’s decision to cut Mock the Week after almost two decades. “I think there is still a feeling of: how did this get cancelled at this point?” he added. “The irritation, really, is that the news is so incredible at the moment that you want to have satire shows going on. I think it’s an important thing. People feel better about the world when they can laugh at the stuff that’s annoying them or that’s absurd or that’s ridiculous or dangerous or whatever. And I don’t understand why it seems like one after another of these shows is going on the Beeb.” He suggested the reason might be that there is “less appetite for comedy” in general among BBC commissioners who have had to deal with shrinking budgets. 

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Jimmy Mulville, the boss of Hat Trick Productions and the man behind Have I Got News for You, dismissed the theory that the BBC had been successfully pressured into dropping other panel shows. “Mock the Week came to the end of its life,” he said. “The Mash Report ran out of fizz, I suppose. Shows come and go.” 

He added: “The BBC are worried about their future. And they’re right to be. We should be worried about the BBC’s future. But I don’t think you can conclude that they’ll expunge all adverse comment about the government of the day in order to cosy up to it. I think that’s just a conspiracy theory gone a bit mad.” 

[See also: Fear and loathing at the BBC]

Like Patterson, Mulville suggested the BBC has lost interest in comedy more generally. “They have come up with an algorithm which says it doesn’t play very well on the iPlayer,” he said. “And the BBC now is in thrall to the iPlayer because digital viewing is the future. I just think it’s part of a much wider conversation the BBC’s having with itself about where to place its funding. And they are placing their bets now on shows that will live on the iPlayer.” 

The BBC says it remains committed to satire, as demonstrated by its long-standing attachment to Have I Got News for You, which is due to enter its 65th series tomorrow night (14 April). Indeed, Mock the Week, Frankie Boyle’s New World Order and The Ranganation were each given many series to run over. But Thoday, Patterson and Mulville appear convinced that, whatever the reasoning, the BBC’s interest in satire and panel shows has dwindled. And while the genre is not for everyone, there will undoubtedly be a large section of the BBC’s audience, or would-be audience, that will miss out. 

The worry for satire fans is that, if the BBC is losing interest in the genre, where will the next comedic staples of British television come from? When I asked Thoday if the BBC of 2023 would commission Russell Howard’s Good News, which ran on BBC Three between 2009 and 2015, he said: “No. I just think it would be too challenging for them.” Mock the Week? “I’m not sure it would,” said Patterson. “I don’t know.” How about Have I Got News for You, which has firmly established itself as one of the nation’s best-loved shows over the past 30 years – surely the BBC of 2023 would commission this show if pitched today? “Probably not,” said Mulville.

[See also: Can the BBC recover from Richard Sharp’s disastrous chairmanship?]