Do team captain and Private Eye editor Ian Hislop's recent comments reveal a favour for comical critique over finding real political solutions? By Isabel Kilborn
Have I Got News for You is known for digesting and satirising the news. But earlier this month, the show made the news itself after Ian Hislop put his foot in it while promoting the new series. Many comedians, actors and presenters have hosted the show, but in twenty-eight years only eleven have been politicians. Only one of those has been a woman: former Conservative politician, Anne Widdecombe. Commenting on this, Hislop argued that despite the efforts of the producers to recruit female politicians as hosts, they have been ‘too modest’ to say yes.
Unsurprisingly, this comment provoked an enormous backlash. Hislop’s undeniable position of privilege, both as a successful man in entertainment, and as a long-standing team captain whose unofficial duty is to mock and undermine the guest hosts, only added to the collective indignant response.
As an established regular who definitely isn’t sitting in the production office ringing MPs on a dreary November afternoon, it’s easy for him to throw stones and offer his own explanation for any complaints voiced by HIGNFY-viewing civilians. Similarly, his position as a satirist who makes his living critiquing politics means he’s less well-versed in offering solutions than mocking solutions other people have come up with. But that’s no excuse for being ignorant.
To start with, as Natalie Hynes pointed out in her Guardian article responding to the furore, being ‘too modest’ hasn’t stopped female politicians embarrassing themselves in front of the viewing public, from I’m a Celebrity to Strictly Come Dancing. Anne Widdecombe herself appeared in the latter, and was the subject of an episode of Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends: both proved undoubtedly that inhibition due to modesty was clearly not an issue for her.
Hislop’s undeniable position of privilege, as a successful man in entertainment... whose unofficial duty is to mock and undermine the guest hosts, only added to the collective indignant response
But Widdecombe is just one female politician whose personal brand – somewhat unusually – seeped into fascination with her personality and idiosyncrasies: a fact she enjoyed taking advantage of. The difference is that, however one may come across sitting in camo in a clearing in Australia, on these shows the celebrities are not required to take charge and drive the show. As much as is possible on television, they themselves can determine more or less how they come across, rather than having to coordinate the action themselves. Commenting as former guest panellists, MPs Nadine Dorries and Dianne Abbott argued last week that in any case, the tough environment of Westminster requires considerable resilience and self-possession, and as such modesty would not be a factor in female politicians rejecting hosting offers.
It’s easy to conflate this with the issue of the comedy scene’s diversity being reflected on television, a problem particularly pertinent to HIGNFY, given that’s it’s a flagship BBC production and that two of the five positions are automatically filled by men. It’s painfully effortless for those such as Hislop – who had to overcome no wealth, gender or racial barriers to achieve success – to blame the show’s lack of diversity on a problem inherent in the women who are asked, rather than those asking them.
Many female politicians arguably have completely understandable reasons for refusing the offer of hosting the show. Appearing as a politician on a satirical show like HIGNFY means you are volunteering yourself as bait in an environment mostly based around the comedy of mocking your decisions and those of your peers. Hosts have the additional duty of guiding the show, keeping the contestants in line, and trying to remain good-humoured while being undercut at every opportunity. Jeremy Paxman took his turn in the first episode of the newest series; he took the approach of shouting a lot, lazily mocking Youth Culture, and patronising Steph McGovern to such an extent that she took him to task. Not that this was taken seriously – in fact, it became a running joke – and even the debacle itself of women politicians hosting was minimised to a throwaway gag in Paxman’s introduction.
his position as a satirist, who makes his living critiquing politics, means he’s less well-versed in offering solutions than mocking solutions other people have come up with
But this in itself is emblematic of the issue at hand. Yes, female politicians might not want to host the show. They might not feel established enough in politics to feel comfortable as the target of the panellists. They might consider that there are more important things they could be doing with their time. They could feel – rightly – as Emine Saner wrote in The Guardian, that as women in politics they are likely to be judged more harshly if they are considered to have done a poor job, so they’d rather not risk doing something which is not what they signed up for and could backfire.
In the world of comedy, as with politics, being white and being male are huge advantages when it comes to achieving renown. The former is regularly reflected in the line-up of HIGNFY, but also in many other popular comedy panel shows like Mock The Week and even the less combative QI. As a member and now President of the University’s sketch comedy society, I have watched hundreds of sketches and stand-up sets since I joined four years ago. The standard comedy figure, who can stand onstage with no excessive analysis of their demeanour or appearance, is a straight white man. They will never be made to feel that they have let down others of their gender, sexuality or race in a show if their performance goes poorly. Their privilege in the eyes of society, and those of audiences, is undeniable.
And this is what’s at issue in Hislop’s comment that female politicians are ‘too modest’ to host Have I Got News for You. He is not responsible for solving issues endemic in society. But he is one of the faces of a show which is long-running, popular, and achieves huge viewership. He is also a satirist of a British political environment in which women are still incredibly poorly represented. As such, simply sitting back in an interview and critiquing women themselves for HIGNFY’s faults makes him seem lazy and smug. It is his duty as a long-standing team host on such a well-established show to use his position to elevate others to succeed, and to make the environment in which he is so comfortable habitable for all genders. Otherwise, this supposed jewel in the BBC’s crown looks self-satisfied, stale and irrelevant.
Featured picture credit: Flickr / U.S. Embassy London