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Have I Got News For You studio, December 2019. Photo: Smurfy / cropped from original / licensed under CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain Dedication, linked at bottom of article

The BBC’s new Director General complaining about left-wing bias in comedy is a joke, writes Chris Nineham

The new Director General of the BBC, Tim Davie, thinks one of the BBC’s big problems is that it employs too many left-wing comedians. He must be having a laugh. 

First of all there aren't very many left-wing comedians at the BBC. 

In fact the BBC has a long record of promoting bigoted and right wing comedians going back to the days of Jim Davidson, Kenny Everett and beyond. During the Thatcher years and for some time after, the left was making some of the running in comedy. Jo Brand got BBC air time, as did the late and much lamented Jeremy Hardy. Alexei Sayle who has made a recent and brilliant comeback was prominent and later Mark Steel had his own shows. 

Mark Steel is still a big presence and we are lucky to have Frankie Boyle and sometimes Francesca Martinez popping up in the mainstream. Guz Khan lands some punches against racist stereotypes and hypocrisy in Man Like Mobeen and there are many other left-wing comedians doing great work.

But they are not dominating BBC comedy. In fact shows like Have I got News For You, The News Quiz and Mock the Week are marked more by a tired cynicism about life in general than anger against the ruling class. As novelist Jonathan Coe argued some years ago this kind of satire was subversive back in the 1950s when the establishment expected unquestioning deference, but in the era of widespread contempt and suspicion of the elites it has become more of a defence mechanism.

After all Have I got News for You's rather self-satisfied, often middle class, snigger-at-everything tone was the vehicle for Boris Johnson's rise to fame. And as Shappi Khorsandi points out, far from being politically correct, 

'In the 43 years it has existed, it (The News Quiz) never nurtured a single non-white comedian to be at its helm or become a regular on it until very recently with Nish Kumar and Phil Wang.' 

The problem here is that Davie is deliberately or otherwise conflating 'left-wing' with 'liberal.' Obviously the Tories are going to the butt of of jokes. They have been in government since 2010 and inflicted rather a lot of damage on society, a fact that can be statistically proved. But there were very few voices in BBC comedy-land backing the most left-wing leader of the Labour party when Jeremy Corbyn took over in 2015, and that surely is the most obvious test.

There is growing popular distrust of the BBC, but actual research shows that this comes largely from the perception that it is 'representing a white, middle class and London-centric point of view that is not relevant to their lives'. In other words it is the BBCs dedication to elite centrism not any kind of left-wing bias that is the issue. 

And this brings us to some of the real problems at the BBC. For the institution as a whole the acceptable political spectrum runs roughly from Starmer to Farage, with Starmer being a bit of an outlier. 

All the relevant research shows that the BBC treated Corbyn and Corbynism as a dangerous aberration. A number of serious complaints have been made that senior BBC staff were actively involved in sabotaging the Corbyn project. Now if he is mentioned at all, Corbyn is routinely dismissed as a self-evident disaster and an antisemite. This despite the fact that the BBC and most other media outlets were shocked by his successful run in the 2017 election and that he doesn’t have a racist bone in his body.

If you want to gauge where the BBC is really at it might be more useful to note that two high profile recent members of its senior staff, Robbie Gibb, a former editor of political output at the BBC, and leading political pundit Andrew Neil are currently working with Rupert Murdoch on the launch of a UK version of Fox News, likely to be branded GB News. Both Gibb and Neil were heavily promoted by the BBC.

And what does it tell us that the new Director General of the BBC thinks mild-mannered banter is a sign of left-wing political bias? 

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Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.

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