On Friday 10 May, the BBC made the controversial decision to take that night’s episode of satirical panel show Have I Got News For You off the air, minutes before it was due to be broadcast on BBC One.
Viewers hoping to hear regulars Ian Hislop of Private Eye and veteran comedian Paul Merton take the week’s current affairs to task were instead greeted with a repeat of an old Would I Lie to You? Why did the BBC pull one of its most prized comic programmes and audience grabbers on such short notice? The answer – political impartiality. That old crutch which has been used to bash the Beeb for decades.
In this instance the controversy revolved around the appearance of Change UK leader Heidi Allen. As the UK will now take part in European Parliamentary elections on 23 May, all politicians featured or even mentioned on British television must be given ‘equal screen time’ with all the others. Because there were no other politicians on the show with Ms. Allen, the BBC decided to pull the show rather than face the wrath of the press and the culture committee.
This was the wrong decision. But as BBC presenter and producer Richard Osman explained this issue is not something new, “Comedy shows find impartiality and ‘equal screen-time’ laws far trickier than news programmes in the lead-up to all elections.” You can see what he means.
Whenever BBC News covers a controversial candidate up for election anywhere, they always follow the report with an obligatory reading of every other candidate standing, from Labour to the Monster Raving Looney Party. It’s not difficult to see why this rule was brought in. For many years, politicians were at the mercy of media owners who would provide positive coverage in exchange for political favours. While the Culture, Media and Sport committee can (or will) do little to challenge the reign of political printed press, they can, at least, ensure that coverage on TV is fair and balanced for all parties. In practice however, even this doesn’t work. As many have pointed out the night before the planned HIGNFY broadcast the BBC’s flagship political show Question Time featured Nigel Farage and his pro-Brexit agenda without an opposition voice from any Remainer.
While the law could be amended and improved for factual television, its implementation on comedy shows just doesn’t work. Comedians don’t claim to be there to tell the truth, nor to be impartial. They are non-political individuals with as much a right as anyone to voice their opinions. It’s called satire and its something we used to pride ourselves on. As for comedy shows having to follow the ‘equal screen time’ rule, well how would that work? Most comedians are left-wing, so should every panel show be 50% right-wing comedians and 50% left-wing comedians? We would have to ship them in from France and America. Henning When, Simon Evans and Geoff Norcott can’t do everything at once. Another reason the rule doesn’t work is that it is based on the fallacy that these political guests don’t have their views challenged on air. Anyone who has ever seen an episode of HIGNFY will testify that politicians of all stripes and ideologies get taken down a peg or two on that show.
The reason such a fuss has been kicked-up about this is because it affects the BBC, an institution that has always been accused of political bias, most often by right-wingers like Farage but sometimes by the far-left who see any jab at the Dear Leader Corbyn as a form of blasphemy perpetrated by the fascist BBC, whom they attack viscously online. The BBC will get criticised whatever it does so it may as well continue producing the type of programming it has done for decades and let poor Hislop and co. continue their noble and patriotic campaign to make our elected officials look like fools.
Last modified: 31st May 2019