The problem with satirising the election

Journalists claimed it was the “most important election in a generation”, so their ability to provide balance and scrutiny was imperative in helping inform the public. But since the election period began, concerns were raised about “biased coverage” and the breaking of electoral law and broadcasting rules.

America has become well versed in some of the problems the UK is experiencing in its political news coverage and one of the ways they are tackling it is through the critical voice of TV satire. Over the last 20 years, satirists like Jon Stewart and John Oliver have become dominant social commentators who have taken the media to task for poor political news reporting and lambasted political institutions for their undemocratic policies. These figures have also been commended for their critical and context driven approach to news reporting that encourages audiences to question dominant political discourses.

While American TV satire’s sophisticated analysis of contemporary politics continues to grow, UK TV satire has been largely absent from our screens. In September, we were promised a new series of Spitting Image but it did not materialise in time for the General Election. BBC’s The Mash Report had an opportunity to provide a weekly satirical critique of party exploits and subsequent news coverage, yet it was nowhere to be seen. A staple of UK television satire – the trusted panel show format of Have I Got News for You was regularly aired but the programme just doesn’t exude the same level of critical and investigative flair found in US satirical platforms.

One of the reasons why the UK has not been able to master the US’s successful model of TV satire is the issue of due impartiality – a broadcast rule that ensures the news is reported in a fair and balanced manner. While TV satire might not fall under the definition of news, Ofcom’s broadcasting rules on ‘Elections and Referendums’ stipulates that “due impartiality must be maintained across all programmes giving coverage to the Election”.

This may explain why TV satire was so thin on the ground because the rules of election impartiality are not conducive to satire practice. Afterall, satire is meant to draw attention to the failings and vices of powerful figures but applying this strategy to all political parties for the sake of balance may not be applicable or funny, and could weaken its overall potency.

While the rules of impartiality have created a precarious media landscape for satirists and comedians, some have not been afraid to embrace this challenge. Take The Last Leg, Channel 4’s live, late-night comedy talk show. It might not be in the same league as US TV satire programmes like Last Week Tonight but its host, Adam Hills, confidently manoeuvred around broadcast rules and delivered a series of fourth estate inspired stories on the General Election.

Drawing parallels with the democratic role of the news media and the citizen surrogate approach of many TV satire programmes, The Last Leg predominantly reported on stories that came directly from its audience who used the show’s Twitter hashtag #isitok? to raise topics of discussion. Such questions were used to unpack and discuss why Boris Johnson was taking part in soft interview programmes like This Morning but avoiding a much harder hitting interview with Andrew Neil.

Impartiality was a key feature in The Last Leg’s approach to critiquing the main party manifestos. While the show’s hosts agreed that Labour’s policies on broadband, and the 4-day working week had major benefits, they also debated Corbyn’s ability to sell good ideas given his low level of popularity with the electorate. The show also paid close attention to the Conservative manifesto and how the document had more pictures of Boris than disabled policies.

Neither of the main parties came off particularly well in the show’s weekly discussions. This is often the case with satire and political comedy, but it can be problematic as the tone of coverage could potentially encourage cynicism and apathy. The Last Leg attempts to overcome this issue by consistently promoting advocacy journalism strategies. In my article Provoking the Citizen I found that TV satirists are increasingly adopting this style of reporting to encourage citizen engagement in the political process. Throughout the election cycle the host, Adam Hills does just that by drawing the audiences’ attention to the importance of casting their vote.

There was potential in this General Election for more satirical voices to challenge and contextualise media and political discourses. But evidently, the rules of election impartiality created obstacles that prevented such voices from being heard. The Last Leg shows us that TV satire can overcome these issues by combining comedy with the conventions of normative journalism practice; specifically avoiding partisanship, holding power to account and prioritising the views and needs of the audience.