Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Boris Johnson? Blame Have I Got News for You and Ian Hislop

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It's too hot to write, but I can't let the accession of Boris Johnson pass without saying it is all the fault of Ian Hislop and Have I Got News for You?

You'll have to register with the London Review of Books site to read it all, but back in 2013 the novelist Jonathan Coe wrote an important article while reviewing Harry Mount's The Wit and Wisdom of Boris Johnson.

I am going to do no more than quote a few passage from it and from an article by Steven Fielding to which it points us.

So here is Coe:
When Humphrey Carpenter interviewed the leading lights of the 1960s satire boom for his book That Was Satire, That Was in the late 1990s, he found that what was once youthful enthusiasm had by now curdled into disillusionment. 
One by one, they expressed dismay at the culture of facetious cynicism their work had spawned, their complaints coalescing into a dismal litany of regret. 
John Bird: ‘Everything is a branch of comedy now. Everybody is a comedian. Everything is subversive. And I find that very tiresome.’ 
Barry Humphries: ‘Everyone is being satirical, everything is a send-up. There’s an infuriating frivolity, cynicism and finally a vacuousness.’ 
Christopher Booker: ‘Peter Cook once said, back in the 1960s, “Britain is in danger of sinking giggling into the sea,” and I think we really are doing that now.’
And, says Coe, that observation by Cook was developed into a Beyond the Fringe sketch about a bunch of young, would-be radical journalists who won’t admit they have sold their soul to a rapacious newspaper proprietor:
COOK: Whenever the old man has a cocktail party, there’s about ten of us – young, progressive people – we all gather up the far end of the room and … quite openly, behind our hands, we snigger at him.
BENNETT: Well, I don’t know, that doesn’t seem very much to me.
COOK: A snigger here, a snigger there – it all adds up.
The sketch makes it clear that laughter is not just ineffectual as a form of protest, but that it actually replaces protest.
And if you do seek out the full article you will find that Michael Frayn, in his introduction to the published script of Beyond the Fringe, made the same point at the time.

Over to Steven Fielding:
The idea that a corrupt elite is screwing a noble people is powerful and pervasive and by no means new. It is therefore no surprise that it is reflected in comedy. It is certainly a view of politics that is popular amongst neo-liberals. 
It was at the heart of the popular 1980s situation comedy Yes Minister which repeatedly showed viewers that their political leaders and civil servants were feather-bedding themselves at the tax-payers’ expense. 
This was why Margaret Thatcher loved the series: it expressed her view that, as representative politics was a moral hazard, it should be replaced as far as possible by the market.
Put like that, satire sounds distinctly right wing.

True, as Fielding points out, few comedy writers and performers are neo-liberals and many were disappointed with New Labour.
However, the cumulative effect of the same jokes ridiculing politicians and highlighting their supposed foibles can only further reinforce mistrust in the public realm, a mistrust that some political forces seek to exploit – and neo-liberals are amongst the nicest of those forces. 
Comedy has always relied on stereotypes. There was a time when the Irish were thick; the Scots careful with their money; mothers-in-law fierce and ugly; and the Welsh stole and shagged sheep. The corrupt politician is one such stereotype, one that is neither racist nor sexist and seemingly acceptable to all.
You'll have to read both article and assemble all the pieces of the argument for yourself - it's this damned heat.

But if you do, you will see why the ascension of Boris Johnson is the fault of Ian Hislop and Have I Got News for You?


Reader's voice: This is all very well, but why is Ian Hislop singled out in the headline?

It's the heat. For Hislop you need to read Martin Kettle:
And what is Hislop's principal message? Week in and week out, it is that most pretty much all politicians are corrupt, deluded, incompetent, second-rate and hypocritical. Hislop's message is delivered with enviable deftness and wit, and very often it is irresistible. But it is also good-naturedly merciless. And extremely repetitive. 
There is never any sign that Hislop allows of exceptions; or that he has a political hero; or even, with the occasional honourable mention for Vince Cable, that there are politicians whom he respects. 
The impression he always gives is that today's politicians are uniformly unworthy of their inheritance, not to be compared with some previous golden age of statesmanlike effectiveness.


Paul Tyler said...

There is a truly serious point here: as a regular reader of Private Eye since its first edition I am only too conscious that liberally-minded satire can be so easily distorted into anti-democratic nihilism = all politics/politicians are so worthless why don't we just opt out. However, Edmund Burke reminds us "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing." On the day when Boris Johnson appoints Dominic Cummings his chief adviser in No 10 I am keeping Mr Burke's advice in front of me on my desk.

Frank Little said...

Of the two candidates for the Conservative leadership, one appeared on HIGNFY seven times; the loser had never appeared.