There seems to be an interesting trend in the BBC’s programming of Question Time. In addition to the carefully balanced selection of national politicians plus a political journalist, we have been treated to what is described as a “comedian”. Last week, it was a scruffily dressed and scruffily spoken Russell Brand. This week, it was someone called Mark Steel who had very similar characteristics.
Both parroted populist lines and half truths you could pick up from the Daily Mirror; both were well left of centre; they were clearly not overly bright but they attracted prolonged cheers and applause from the audience or, at least, a section of the audience, knowing how careful the BBC is to secure political balance in everything but its choice of comics on panels.
They were not in the least funny, Messrs Brand and Steel; they were not very bright; they were well to the left; in fact Mark Steel was, if Wikipedia is to be believed, a fully paid-up member of the Socialist Workers Party until resigning in 2007. Do people pay to listen to these comics? Why does anyone think they should appear on the same panel as government ministers and opposition spokesmen who, presumably, must have some knowledge of the complexities of politics?
I am generally a fan of the BBC and public service broadcasting and an inveterate listener to the Home Service (Radio 4 to youngsters). However, the mere sight of a scruffy, long haired, bearded and badly dressed comic like Russell Brand will have me reaching for the OFF button in double quick time.
Curiosity has triumphed and I have checked out these comics on the web.
To my bafflement, Russell Brand boasts of being a vegetarian since the age of 14 and a vegan since 2011; he has suffered attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, bipolar disorder and bulimia. He comes from a broken home, clearly had a disturbed and disturbing upbringing and has, by his own admission, dabbled in cannabis, LSD and ecstasy, graduating to heroin, sex addiction and alcoholism. He has been in trouble with the law in the US after altercations with the paparazzi. Despite this, he apparently makes a living as a comic in the UK and now, as a panelist on BBC Question Time.
Turning to Mark Steel, his childhood was not dissimilar to that of Russell Brand. Adopted within days of his birth, his father suffered a mental breakdown when Steel was a teenager and was put into care. Steel joined the Socialist Workers Party, supporting strikes and demonstrations during the Thatcher years and he was present in Southall when Blair Peach died. He has made a career in comedy and it seems that people pay to hear his left-wing views. He has written for The Guardian until a falling out and now writes for The Independent.
I suppose my question for the BBC is, given your public commitment – enshrined in the Charter – to political balance, if you believe listeners want their Question Times to be dumbed down by comics like Brand and Steel, where will you find the right-wing comics to provide that political balance? Or can we go back to a panel of heavy weight politicians and send the comics back where they belong?