Saturday 13 April 2013

The death of British political satire

The Daily Show’s recent satirical report on North Korea has been an internet hit in China, attracting 2.8 million views. The Washington Post blog reports:
“The Daily Show” is not big in China. But when the popular Chinese Web portal Sina posted an eight-minute segment from the show discussing the latest North Korean provocations, it racked up an astounding 2.8 million views and counting, as well as tens of thousands of comments, many of them praising the show. That appears to make it one of the most-watched “Daily Show” clips ever. It also raises questions about whether China’s flagging support for North Korea might reflect popular sentiment as well as Beijing’s own geopolitical calculus.
The clip embedded in that blog doesn’t work outside the USA, so here is a version that should work anywhere:

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is available on Comedy Central in the UK, so many British people have the opportunity to watch it. And it is interesting to ask why we no longer have satire of this calibre in Britain.

We used to do it well. The BBC produced That Was The Week That Was fifty years ago, when Jon Stewart was only just born. Nowadays, we have Have I Got News For You and Mock the Week, which I analysed in an earlier blog post:
For a true view of how the British merge politics and entertainment, one has to look instead at comedy – the sitcoms Yes Minister/Yes Prime Minister, The New Statesman and The Thick of It, and the panel games Have I Got News For You and Mock the Week. In isolation, each of these shows is quality entertainment, but together they promote a thoroughly cynical view of politics. In fact, they are more than cynical; they are nihilistic, suggesting that the whole business of politics is risible and that no one in public life is trustworthy or competent. The problem isn’t that these programmes satirise individual politicians or specific types of behaviour but that they imply the whole enterprise is doomed.
The only recent British TV programme that genuinely qualified as political satire was Bremner, Bird and Fortune, and it was last broadcast in 2008. There has been an attempt at a British Daily Show with Channel 4’s 10 O'Clock Live, but it was less than the sum of its celebrity parts. It also suffered from the destructive cynicism that infects other shows.

And that is the difference. The Daily Show mercilessly rips apart the humbug of politicians but it never despises politics itself. The possibility that politics could be better is always left open. The current crop of British satire, on the other hand, regards the whole enterprise as irredeemable. And that is not really satire at all.

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