Satirists are like pop stars in two respects. They earn extraordinary amounts of money, and the public assumes that they are left wing. You do not need to be a Marxist to suspect that the former will work against the latter. Investments in a hedge fund have a habit of dominating your mind however many songs of teenage rebellion you sing or jokes you make about the cruelties of ConDem Britain. As time goes on, your anti-establishment views change from sincere opinions into poses. They are your meal ticket. Like a lawyer defending a client he knows to be guilty, you must maintain the illusion that you believe every word you say or lose your appearance fees.
The rock star, who lauds urban riots, can never admit that if there were trouble around his mansion he would call the chief constable. The satirist, who excoriates the greed of the rich, can never confess that he is as greedy and, indeed, as rich himself. Last year on Channel 4 Jimmy Carr took on Barclays for carrying out a tax-avoidance scheme. Carr donned a blonde wig to play a female bank clerk, ‘Why don’t you apply for the Barclays’ 1 per cent tax scam,’ she announced to her customers. ‘You will need the world’s biggest, most aggressive team of blood-hungry amoral tax lawyers. If you meet the criteria, you’ll pay 1 per cent tax, like Barclays do.’
As this morning’s Times reveals (£), paying 1 per cent or thereabouts is what Mr Carr does. He leaves it to the schmucks in his audience to pick up the rest of his tax bill by channelling £3.3 million a year through a Jersey tax avoidance &”scam,” if I may use his own words against him.
Britain has a culture of pretence. Artists, comedians and journalists present themselves as brave speakers of truth to power, the smasher of establishments and the breakers of taboos, while all the time behaving as badly as the people they criticise. The hypocrisy is not the worst of it. Our culture suffers because the best satirists have often been natural conservatives who pitch the supposedly virtuous old order against ridiculous innovations of the present. As I have written before, Swift, Powell, Waugh and most of the rest of the great satirists followed Juvenal, who contrasted old virtuous Rome with the vulgarity brought by Greek flatterers and Jewish merchants who had so corrupted the eternal city that they left &”no room for honest callings”. Nostalgia is often false. But it is a devastating satirical technique. The old is comforting, familiar and tested. The new is confusing, faddish and dangerous. You do not have to be right wing to be a conservative, obviously. Nostalgia for the old social democratic order the conservatives were destroying with their weird market ideologies spurred the anti-Thatcher satire boom of the 1980s.
The trouble today is that you do — rather obviously — have to subscribe to a mushy version of left-liberal thought if you want to perform political comedy or write political drama for British radio or television. The former BBC presenter Dennis Sewell has produced an interesting pamphlet for the New Culture Forum describing a system of soft censorship at the BBC, which excludes contrary writers. Although I disagree with his conclusions — rather than abolish censorship, he wants to extend it to ensure the BBC balances &”left” comedy or drama with &”conservative” comedy or drama — his case against the status quo is unanswerable.
Sewell does not examine the unintended consequences that flow from television’s narrow vision. The case of Carr is an excellent corrective. In a joke funnier than any it broadcasts, the television establishment has surely done for him. Carr ought to be able to say, &”I’ve committed no crime. I am just taking advantage of legal tax loopholes. Like so many people in every trade, I’m in comedy for the money and want to keep every penny I can. What’s wrong with that?” There would be nothing wrong if he had had the integrity to be an honest clown. As it is, the postures television required him to strike, and the cynicism behind the lies he has lived, make him a laughable figure — and for all the wrong reasons.
Give something clever this Christmas – a year’s subscription to The Spectator for just £75. And we’ll give you a free bottle of champagne. Click here.