Stop deleting our comedy shows – what we watch shouldn't be heavily restricted

TV is now a battleground for society’s culture wars. The new director of the BBC might axe left-wing comedy, but humour exposes what defines, unites and divides us

Jemimah Steinfeld
Thursday 03 September 2020 19:28 BST
Phoebe Waller-Bridge wins Best Actress in a TV Comedy for Fleabag

Joke about Brexit? You’re too left-wing. Mock Jeremy Corbyn? You’ve got a right-wing agenda. Air a 1970s comedy with an actor in blackface? You’re actively promoting racism. Over the last few months, our television screens have become a battleground for society’s broader culture wars, and the BBC’s incoming new director is about to jump straight in.

Tim Davie is set to make an official announcement on Thursday of his plans for the network. Ahead of this announcement, senior sources revealed that his primary target was the “left-wing bias” in the broadcaster’s output. Sources said no firm commitment has been given as to how said bias will be tackled, they did say some shows (in particular comedy shows) would be axed.

Only a few months ago, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, producers at major channels and streaming services quickly made moves to clear their catalogues of anything that could be perceived as racist. In this rush, the most iconic episode of Fawlty Towers was removed. It later reappeared with a warning at the start.

At Index on Censorship, as part of a report in the upcoming autumn issue, we did a tally of just how many shows had been taken off air. The result? Dozens. And some of the biggest as well. On the BBC, Little Britain was taken down in its entirety. The same fate befell Bo’ Selecta! from All4. Other has-beens include episodes from 30 Rock and Scrubs. If the rumours of Mr Davie’s intentions prove true we can expect this list to get a whole lot longer.

This is a worrying new trend. As we have become increasingly polarised politically, what we are allowed to watch is becoming increasingly restricted and comedy is taking a particular hit. The doors are closing in on both sides. Soon we might find ourselves in a place where only the least offensive to everyone gets the green light. But since when has not being offended been a right?

The best comedies look into society’s inner soul and shine a spotlight on what defines, unites and divides us. Sometimes this is beautiful, other times ugly as hell. Often it's uncomfortable. Whether it’s a fake Jesus in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat singing “throw the Jew down the well” or today’s Fleabag masturbating onscreen to the horror of anyone prudish, comedy aims to provoke. This provocation reflects not only who we are at that moment in time, but when executed effectively it also drives us to question who we want to be.

Great comedy needs free expression. It’s its lifeline. And some of the best comedy offends those on both the left and the right. That doesn’t mean it has to be completely unfiltered; comedy should not incite hatred and violence (which some are definitely guilty of). But there is a gap between this and the more subjective charge of causing offence or being biased.

As a state-owned broadcaster, the BBC needs to promote fair and free programming that is not subject to external interference. Indeed this is something it champions in its editorial guidelines. For example, here: “Audiences everywhere must be able to trust the BBC. In order to achieve that, our impartiality, editorial integrity and independence must not be compromised by outside interests and arrangements.”

It’s guidelines such as these that set the BBC apart from other national broadcasters, like Russia’s and China’s, where state-owned very much means state-run, or from countries where there are no state broadcasters at all.

Mr Davie might respond by saying there have been complaints of a left-wing bias. And of course there have! People love to complain. And yet for every poll or opinion piece that suggests a left-wing bias, a different one emerges arguing the opposite. If Mr Davie responds to all the complaints he’s going to tie himself and the BBC in knots. History will be rewritten; educational opportunities missed and some great entertainment cast aside.

We want the BBC to do what it has long done brilliantly, airing the best comedy and comedians out there today. That might mean more left-wing comedians, if those are the cream of the crop, or it might not. And we want it now more so than ever. After all, due to Covid-19 we are spending a lot more time sat on our sofas (an Ofcom study recently revealed that people in the UK at the height of lockdown spent almost half their waking hours watching TV and using online streaming services).

While we’re mostly free from the harshest form of lockdown, we are still watching away and still really in need of a laugh. And not just any laugh. We need a butt-tensing, stitch-giving, laugh-until-you-snort kind of laugh. And that kind of laugh can come from anyone, anywhere. So let’s please think carefully before deleting that next show or comedian.

Jemimah Steinfeld is deputy editor of Index on Censorship magazine

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