Politics on the telly


Some thoughts on the coverage of politics and satire on telly

I can’t remember who it was, but someone on the telly described BBC Parliament as a “narrowcaster” rather than a broadcaster because only people like me watch it regularly. (I also keep tabs on BBC Democracy Live for things like select committee hearings).

The past decade or so (until the most recent election) have been quite a dull time as far as politics-related programmes go. I still mourn the loss of Spitting Image – the last of which was broadcast in 1996. Yet according to Ben Elton things started getting tricky for Spitting Image after the resignations of Lawson and Howe in the late 1980s. At the time he went after the then new Chancellor John Major (in the months before he became Prime Minister) proclaiming that Major was a complete non-entity – a vacuum…and that if he stood still for long enough he’d suck the carpet up his trousers. He also noted how many of the personalities of the early years of Thatcher’s government had been replaced by non-entities in comparison – wheeling off a list of Conservative titans from those years concluding: “They may have been bastards but at least you’d heard of them. These days? Nothing.” – Leaving Spitting Image with nothing but grey sock puppets.

The likes of 2DTV, Have I got news for you and Bremner, Bird and Fortune feel a little tame for me compared to what Spitting Image and the likes of Fry, Laurie, Elton, Atkinson and co were coming out with in the 1980s. Ditto going back further to the likes of David Frost in the early 1960s given the context.

But people are experimenting. 10 o’clock live is one such experiment. Charlie Brooker, David Mitchell, Lauren Laverne and Jimmy Carr kicked this off, though it’s been a bit “hit and miss” – which is a shame. It would have been nice for Channel 4 to have had a widely-publicised “give us your feedback on the first series” exercise to feed into the current one, which I can’t help but feel has less energy than the last one. My own take for it would be to have Brooks & Mitchell leading it, and replacing Carr and Laverne with two up-and-coming female comedians/satirists or having the two slots on rotation to showcase some of the top comic/satirical talent coming through from the comedy clubs.

BBC Radio 4 has traditionally had a strong Friday night comedy schedule – an example of which (for any atheists out there) is from Marcus Brigstocke on religion. (This went out at 6:30pm in the evening.

Moving away from satire to serious, I can’t help but feel Jeremy Paxman is past his sell-by date. On Newsnight I can’t help but feel that the more interesting/productive discussions have been ones where it’s been mainly women on the panel. It’s something that I’ve noticed with Puffles’ Twitterfeed – the majority of people who engage with Puffles seem to be women. Ditto with those accounts through Puffles I follow.

As interviewers go, Andrew Neil seems to be the strongest of them for me, being able to adapt his interviewing style to the type of defence that interviewees put up. He can do the softly-softly but can go all attack-dog if necessary. Paxo only seems to have one mode. His background at the top of Murdoch’s UK empire (before falling out with him) gives him the sort of insight into politics that few of us have. It’s this plus the presence of former secretaries of state on the sofa of BBC This Week (normally after Question Time) that also give insights of the dilemas facing those currently in post.

Speaking of Question Time, for me it no longer works. It currently has the feel of politicians reciting their lines to take in an audience loaded with party-political stooges told what to ask/say by local party hierarchies. It goes something along the lines of:

Audience member: “My question is A”

Politician: “That’s a very good question and you’re right to raise it. I’m now going to repeat your question, expand on it, make points 1, 2 & 3, possibly saying something bad about my political opponents’ records and then fail to answer your question.

Dead Ringers spoofed BBC Question Time a few years back.

Yes, I have done media training too and the above is a classic on how to get out of answering a question that you don’t really have an answer to, or where you know the person asking the question has got hold of something/somewhere you’d rather they didn’t. This is often followed by comments from the “stooges”. Maybe Question Time should make people wear badges of the colour of the party they either last voted for and/or are a member of. That way the audience would be able to judge immediately if an audience member is parroting a loaded point. (If they chose to hide their badges/ lie & wear a “neutral/nonpolitical” badge while making an “I think [insert name of party] is fantastic” point, they’d look all the more ridiculous for it).

Quite the opposite of a new show aimed at a younger audience called BBC Free Speech which moves away from party politics and onto issues. Judging from the first episode the audience would have shredded a Question Time panel – the audience was a passionate non-party-political one that went after points of substance rather than points of spin. It’s a shame it’s on only once a month on BBC Three. I hope it takes off and gets a more regular mainstream slot – especially one that doesn’t clash with other programmes.

It’s not all BBC and Channel 4 – ITV has also started moving towards what it describes as an “upmarket post-peak” audience with Tom Bradby’s The Agenda. (See here for the first episode). It has the feel of a calm, extended Newsnight debate. It will be interesting to see if ITV choose to stick with it – there’s been something missing on ITV’s politics coverage since Brian Walden’s retirement.


One thought on “Politics on the telly

  1. I’d really like to know how the BBC chooses the guests for BBC Question Time panels. There has been an increasingly right-wing slant.

    A lot of the problem too lies with David Dimbleby being allowed to keep on as compere of the programme despite appearing increasingly ineffective. I’m old enough to remember Sir Robin Day chairing the Question Time panel, and my recollection is, he was sharp. Dimbleby bullies and interrupts panellists he considers to be his inferiors – ethnic minorities, women, etc – and lets wealthy white men he thinks of as his peers ramble on at length. He’s not good with the audience. I’d like to see QT again with a really effective chair – someone with no deference to British power structures. And much more effort to make the panels diverse and representative.

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