“Archaic ruling states that Commons footage is beyond ridicule.”
It may come as a surprise to many readers that the United Kingdom, a country that enjoys one of the world’s finest traditions of free speech, currently enforces a ban on “broadcasting parliamentary proceedings in a comedic or satirical context”. Although satirists can get around this ban in a number of ways, such as quoting, or even (as in the case of one Charlie Brooker sketch) re-enacting parliamentary encounters, the message from the UK’s politicians is clear: proceedings in the very hub of our democracy remain off-limits to the nation’s satirists.
This is worrying for two reasons. It shows an arrogance of thought on behalf of the rule makers, deigning parliamentary events ‘too serious’ for representation by comedians. However well-intentioned these concerns for the integrity of parliament may be, this message demonstrates a violation of the integrity of the media. For politicians to actively impose their own will on our nation’s satirists is an undemocratic act.
The other main concern is that the ban undermines the importance of satire in holding politicians to account. Maybe that’s the point. With viewing figures approaching 6 and 2.5 million respectively, comedy programmes like Have I Got News For You and Mock the Week usually outstrip the BBC’s flagship political programme, Question Time (2.7 million viewers). These programmes bring their political content to a far wider audience, largely because satire, as a form of communication, is frankly more engaging than straight-forward reporting.
It is even more disconcerting that the BBC voluntarily banned the satirical use of footage from last year’s Royal Wedding, after negotiations with the Royal Family. This demonstrates a rather more complicit denigration of the role of satire in public life. The BBC should not have willingly constricted satirists’ ability to make light of a major, publicly funded national event.
Satire is the ability to challenge the seriousness in which absurdities are accepted as the status quo. This should be a vital tool for all those interested in ensuring that the values of the political elite reflect those of the public that elected them. The power of the media to pierce a stale consensus must be defended, enhanced and used proactively in a period of political and economic crisis that is so crucial for the future of our country. The ban on using parliamentary footage satirically should be scrapped. In a time of double-dip recession, the MPs’ expenses scandal and Leveson’s revelations of weak political integrity, satirists have much to mock.