Broadcasting Rules are Killing Political Satire – Thank Heavens for the Internet
Political journalists, especially during elections, should provide balanced news coverage of parties and scrutinise each parties’ political agendas to help properly inform the public. Sadly this is an ideal that is all-too-rarely realised. The 2015 election was reported as a horse race, the EU referendum starved voters of the facts about Brexit and coverage of this year’s election campaign has been more about demonising Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn than in taking a close look at the rival parties’ policy platforms.
And, as ever, major parties are making it as hard as possible for the public to make an informed choice by adopting tightly controlled campaign strategies where they refrain from answering direct questions from journalists and engaging with voters.
These trends are problematic, because they can unfairly influence our understanding of political parties and their policies. Nevertheless, they are key ingredients for an atmosphere that is ripe for political satire. Satire, after all, attempts to focus on the unanswered questions and clarify the underlying morality of the political landscape. It’s a practice that American TV satire has capitalised on over the past 17 years thanks to the rise of professionalised politics and a highly partisan media. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, for example, left a legacy of engaging political critique now adopted by shows such as Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and Sam Bee’s Full Frontal.
Satire is no replacement for hard political news programming, but the US model of late night TV comedy has demonstrated a sophisticated level of analysis often missed by mainstream news. Take Stephen Colbert’s Super-Pac campaign that exposed the legal loopholes of America’s campaign finance system and was later picked up by the New York Times.
Or Sam Bee’s investigative piece on the Russian “thinkfluencers” paid by the Kremlin to post pro-Trump messages on US media websites. In October 2016, this story went unmentioned by Western journalists, yet it eventually became part of a wider investigation into Russia’s interference in the US election.
Unfortunately, long-form critical and investigative satire is largely absent from television in the UK. Instead the genre sticks with the trusted TV panel show format found in Have I Got News for You and Mock the Week. These shows have become a staple of UK television satire – but they lack the critical and investigative flair of their American counterparts.
There are many reasons why the UK is unable to replicate the US model. Frankie Boyle argues that Britain is crying out for its own Daily Show equivalent but TV executives are afraid to take risks. They want satire with “an establishment voice” rather than a format that thinks for itself and challenges the British media and political system .
The UK TV satire model also faces other obstacles, such as the 1989 broadcast rule which prevents footage from the House of Commons being used in “in any light entertainment programme or in a programme of political satire” . This issue was raised by the writer and presenter of Newswipe, Charlie Brooker who was prevented from airing footage of the phone hacking select committee on Newswipe – while US satire shows could.
Fair and balanced
There is also the issue of due impartiality – a broadcast rule to ensure news is reported fairly and in an appropriately balanced manner. Satire may not be considered “news” in a traditional sense – but the rules of due impartiality still hold, as programme content often deals with “matters of political or industrial controversy” or “matters relating to current public policy”.
This puts UK broadcast satire in a precarious position where it has to ensure balance in satirical skewering. The comedy writer Pete Sinclair, who has worked on shows like Have I Got News for You, Power Monkeys, and Spitting Image, told me that during election time comedy and satire writers are “obliged to be impartial”. He recalls working on the Radio 4 satirical sketch show, Week Ending, during the 1983 election and how producers “had to make sure that the overall number of jokes about each party was suitably balanced in each show”.
Despite a wealth of material available to satirists in this current election cycle, the restrictions of due impartiality may act as a form of censorship where writers and programme producers exclude comedic critiques to adhere to the rules of balance. This is perhaps why UK television satire has been unable to replicate the success of The Daily Show, as US satirists and comedians are not restricted by the same broadcasting rules.
What’s the alternative?
There are of course other platforms of comedy/satirical critique that are unrestricted by rules of due impartiality. Take the beacon of rebel journalism, Private Eye, and its commitment to investigative journalism that has uncovered many cases of political corruption and newspaper hypocrisy.
The internet is also the perfect environment for satire to flourish, given its lack of restrictions and a ready-made audience of young people who use social media as their main source of news. Two sources that young people are gravitating towards are Jonathan Pie and Russell Brand’s The Trews.
Both offer very different forms of satire and comedic social commentary but simultaneously tap into a wider argument about the apathy that young people in particular feel towards mainstream journalism and politics.
Whether their motivation is online shareability or Facebook “likes” they both provide a platform that helps unpack the highly constructed nature of contemporary journalism and politics. Both also address the declining participation of young people in politics by directly encouraging their audiences to register and vote in the election.
Pie and Brand may not have the cultural capital or sophistication of figures like Stewart or Oliver. Nevertheless, the internet offers them the freedom to tackle subjects that are often missing or toned down in broadcast satire.