Dr Jennifer Young (University of Groningen), 30 January 2024
Humour is a useful device used by politicians both to gain popularity with the electorate but also to belittle their opponents. See for example the case of Patrício Monteiro Telo de Abreu v. Portugal. He was a municipal councillor and parliamentary group advisor who wrote a blog with cartoons depicting other local politicians as animals. The former British politician, Robert Key suggested that whilst in opposition politicians should “Use humour ruthlessly. Getting the nation to laugh at your opponents is more devastating than a hundred political debating points. Every politician claims to be able to take a joke but in truth we are the most sensitive creatures, desperate to be popular and loved, and to be laughed at, especially by our own supporters, is deeply wounding.”
It is not just politicians laughing at other politicians which might be considered damaging to their standing, comedy is an important tool used by the electorate to point out the shortcomings of government, the media and celebrity culture. Comedy is an effective and amusing socio-political commentary. It can engage and inform audiences of political events and social issues and potentially have an effect at the ballot box. Used in this way, it is a form of dissent and politicians understand this. Therefore, the freedom to write and perform political satire acts as an indicator of a functioning democracy.
In an interview in the British Newspaper The Guardian, the Welsh politician Neil Kinnock said ‘lampooning leaders (and some of their sycophants and parasites) is essential to liberty. In democracies it exposes shams and manipulators, in authoritarian states it enables people to breathe and hope, and it gives the protection of wry mockery to places which are in danger of sliding to sour extremities. Orwell said, ‘each joke is a tiny revolution’. Up the revolution!’.
But revolutions, tiny or otherwise, are not always welcomed by all politicians. Censoring humour, especially humour that challenges the Government or institutions, can indicate where democracies are not functioning quite so well. Authoritarian states often censor and sometimes imprison comedians, recent examples can be seen in other blogs on this website, but it is not just politicians in authoritarian countries that take issue with humour. Even those in democratically elected Parliaments sometimes refuse to laugh along when they find themselves the target of a joke and turn to legislation to protect themselves. Recent examples of political interference as a reaction to political satire come from places as diverse as Portugal, Italy and South Africa.
In the United Kingdom, the BBC is often in the eye of the storm when it comes to reporting on the British Government, or indeed global political events. It is routinely accused of bias in its reporting by all sides of the political spectrum. Currently BBC output is in the spotlight as part of the Mid-Term review of its charter and agreement with the government as the public broadcaster. The Conservative Government has focused especially on one element of the BBC’s remit, the BBC’s impartiality. Government representatives, doing the media rounds, were routinely asked to provide evidence of the BBC’s failure to be impartial and it was proving difficult for them to provide examples. From this media merry-go-round we have discovered another, sensitive creature, the British Politician Huw Merriman MP. He hit the headlines in the United Kingdom after he complained that a satirical radio programme on BBC radio was biased against the government. He was accusing the BBC of contravening their impartiality requirements.
For a country which considers itself as having been at the forefront of comedy and satire it’s quite a shock that Huw Merriman was unable to recognise the style and purpose of satire. This came to light when he appeared on the Sky News channel to discuss reforms for the BBC with the journalist Kay Burley. He had been asked to provide examples of BBC bias and he gave the example of the long-running BBC Radio satirical game show called ‘The News Quiz’.
Huw Merriman stated that “I was listening to the news quiz […] for ten minutes all I heard, and it wasn’t satirical, it was just diatribe against Conservatives, not the Government, and I did listen to that and think ‘for goodness sake where is the balance in that?’. So yes, I am afraid to say that despite the fact that I have always been a big supporter of the BBC, that struck me as completely biased’. Kay Burley seemed confused and checked that Mr Merriman understood ‘that a news quiz is comedy and nothing to do with actual news?’.
Whilst he replied that he loved it ‘when politicians get lampooned’ he also believed ‘there wasn’t actually anything in it in that particular regard which struck me as being sort of amusing. I[…]. It didn’t strike me, a) as being particularly satirical,’ he reiterated that he thought it was ‘totally biased’.
Turning to the alleged ‘ten-minute diatribe’, the first joke is about a beach in Wales which is cold and the male presenter regrets trying out his new bikini. The second is about Prince William looking after his own children. Then follows a section on the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill which discusses the passage of the bill through Parliament and the House of Lords. The bill itself feels like a joke, the scheme has proved eye wateringly expensive and, on the face of it, it seems that the British government thinks all it must do to make Rwanda a safe country to send asylum seekers to is to vote it as being a safe country to send asylum seekers to.
The bill itself is very controversial, the European Court of Human Rights ruled the first flight to Rwanda as unlawful and the bill faces further uncertainty as it enters the House of Lords given, in its current form, it breaches the European Convention on Human Rights. The News Quiz discusses the bill and makes numerous jokes about many British Conservative politicians and their policy suggestions to try and stop asylum seekers travelling from France to Britain in small boats. The politician Lee Anderson is the main focus for this section as he had recently hit the headlines because of the way in which he waivered over support for the bill. Mr Anderson also works as a well-paid presenter on the right-wing channel GB News, which has not always adhered to its own impartiality requirements.
Given how the Rwanda Bill has been hitting the headlines in the UK for a substantial length of time it would, if anything, have been biased (in favour of the government) for a satirical news quiz not to take a swipe at it. Lee Anderson was lampooned, there was a comparison of Lee Anderson being paid by GB News to give ‘high level political analysis’ as being akin to ask Dr. Harold Shipman, Britain’s most notorious serial murderer, to give advice on social care.
Returning to Mr. Merriman’s interview, when pushed again to give an example of BBC bias he referred to a BBC report about the universal credit scheme. Unfortunately, he named the reporter as Neil Buchanan who was a children’s television presenter. Maybe Mr Merriman could appear as a panellist on The News Quiz, after all he seems to consider himself an expert on humour and his interview proved that MPs can be funny. He could consider a career in comedy should he get voted out at the next election.
It is a shame that some sensitive politicians cannot, let us hope they are not considering banning all comedy against the ruling party, that sounds a little authoritarian. It would be especially ironic if it were to be instigated by a man called Merriman who suffers from a sense of humour failure.