Tim Davie certainly knows how to make an entrance. A Telegraph exclusive the night before his first day on the job as Director General of the BBC revealed he believes the BBC’s comedy output is too left-wing. Because comedy is meant to be educational, right?
This turned out to be codswallop. Quizzed on the matter in a BBC staff webcast on Thursday, he said: ‘I’ve no idea where that came from … it’s not about stopping anyone, it’s all nonsense’. And:
‘I want good satire on the BBC, I like being adventurous there. It’s exactly the same as my overall framework for impartiality. The BBC should come from a platform where there’s no one assumed point of view’
— Tim Davie, BBC Director General
But despite Davie’s denials, the Twitter culture war rages on, and the record needs setting straight. In a painfully ironic role-reversal, it’s now satirical shows that find themselves in the firing line – except this is no joke. The fact the BBC’s comedy output is being treated as an ideological barometer is more than just ridiculous, it’s offensive to journalists.
Ridiculous, because satire, by design, mocks those in power
Satire has a target, it makes a point. There’s nothing clever about mocking marginalised groups, even if, with the right joke, it could be funny. Satire, if it is to be held as an art rather than a sophisticated form of bullying, doesn’t target those without a voice.
So why are we surprised that the BBC’s topical comedy shows have made Donald Trump and the Conservatives their playthings? Are we forgetting that the Blair government received the same rough treatment in its primacy? And that during those years, Boris Johnson not only appeared thrice as a guest on Have I Got News For You but hosted the programme four times?
As far as satirists are concerned, the government is low-hanging fruit. You can’t blame them for picking it.
‘Comedy about the party who is in charge of the country & at a time when everything is clearly going so bloody well MUST BE STOPPED. Communist-edians Out!’
— Comedian Aisling Bea
More importantly, it’s offensive to journalists
I’m a journalist who happens to be hilarious (duh). That fact alone doesn’t make me a comedian. By the same token, a comedian doesn’t earn their journalistic stripes just because they figured out how to use Google and threw a couple of facts into their set.
Yet when a TV show is formatted like a news programme, it’s held to the same standards as the bulletins. The Mash Report is a clear candidate for criticism, its host Nish Kumar having torn rambunctiously into the powers that be at every opportunity over its four series and called for outright political revolution from behind his autocue and ‘news desk’.
‘Tech companies and social media need to clamp down on hate speech, we need to stop looking to the financial sector for moral guidance. Governments need to stop co-opting the rhetoric of the far right and the media needs to be willing to appropriately classify prejudice’.
— Nish Kumar, The Mash Report
But despite its topical themes, The Mash Report isn’t a news programme, and neither are Mock the Week, The Now Show, Dead Ringers or Have I Got News For You. Frankly, the people for whom the stories covered on these programmes are ‘news’ might want to find a better vehicle for keeping up with current affairs than the ‘What’s happening’ bar on Twitter.
The BBC’s actual news programmes, from Today to Politics Live, from The Andrew Marr Show to Newsnight, are produced by qualified journalists, with ethical and regulatory frameworks to preserve their accuracy and impartiality. Claims must be backed up with authentic evidence, investigations conducted within legal parameters, and accuracy sought at all times. Granted, mistakes are sometimes made, à la Emily Maitlis this spring. But when there is clear evidence of bias, it becomes a major news story in its own right. Comedy, on the other hand, exists to be biased. Slander is not only tolerated but positively encouraged. That’s the whole point!
Allow me to bore you with some regulation. The BBC is held to Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code, section 5 which deals with due accuracy and impartiality. News programmes are obliged to deliver an appropriately wide range of significant views, giving them due weight. Views they include can be balanced either within a programme or in clearly linked and timely episodes, and presenters must announce any relevant personal views that could colour their judgement. (You still here?)
Now, it’s not made explicit whether satirical output is held to the same editorial standards as news journalism. A 2019 Ofcom review of BBC News and Current Affairs cited ‘satirical targeting of a range of figures’ amongst ‘editorial techniques used by the BBC to preserve due impartiality’, suggesting satire is included in the news package. Indeed, Ofcom applies section 5 to ‘news, in whatever form’.
Davie in fact reinforced this idea in his webcast, stating that his approach to satire is ‘exactly the same as my overall framework for impartiality’.
But labelling topical comedy ‘news’ just because it’s about something in the news makes their mandate damn near Sisyphean. You can’t demand comedy be balanced, just as you can’t demand the news be funny. Satire is to journalism what apples are to pears, even if some apples masquerade as pears because it’s a funny format for a satirical TV show. You got that, Tim?
How to stop conflating comedy and journalism
Perhaps it’s easier to imagine comedy and journalism as a continuum. On one end, you have your model journalist, slavishly obeying IPSO diktat, corroborating their every word and making a daily blood sacrifice to the Gods of Impartiality at dawn. On the other, you have Frankie Boyle.
In the middle, you’ll find hacks repeating their clients’ thoughts like parrots, reporters riffing on stories to fill airtime, and columnists spouting their opinions like modern-day prophets (not least orator-cum-Prime Minister, Boris Johnson). All are technically journalists.
But you’ll also find people like John Oliver muddying the water. The presenter has been praised for his show’s brand of ‘investigative comedy’, of a similar flavour to The Mash Report’s. But he, like Kumar, rejects the label of journalist — and too right. Satire may inform you, if its producers have done research you yourself have not. But we can’t allow our own ignorance to skew our judgement of what’s serious journalism and what’s just meant to be a laugh.