B.ack in 1996, Paul Merton stepped down from his role as a panellist on Have I Got News For You. The show was in a rut. It was understandable, of course: how many TV programs manage to keep firing on all cylinders after 10 full series on the air? Damn few. But Merton returned, mere months later, and he and Ian Hislop have remained wedded to the series ever since. Now, with the stalwart BBC comedy kicking off its 63rd series, the very notion of a rut seems almost besides the point. No, this is full-blown groundhog dayand Merton and Hislop are both Bill Murray, three acts deep and long past the point of resistance, robotically resigned to living that one February day over and over into eternity.
Have I Got News For You laid the formula for the modern British panel series; it has endured so long that most of its myriad imitators (from mock the week to IQ) have faded into cultural irrelevance. What, exactly, is behind this ungodly longevity? Well, for one thing, it still draws an audience. (While viewership is down from its heyday, the decline over the past decade has been slight.) It is, for better or worse, a well-oiled machine – perhaps a little over-lubricated for those who prefer their satire sharp-edged and fractious. Its cadre of regular guest hosts and panelists rarely throw up any incident whatsoever. Some of the show’s other most-featured supporting players – Jo Brand, David Mitchell, Andy Hamilton (who features as a panellist tonight for the 26th time) – are also reliably droll. But there’s a stagnancy to the guest selection, which too often skews male, and far too often skews straight and white. Alexander Armstrong has hosted 37 times now. Next week’s host, Victoria Coren Mitchell, has featured on the series 24 times; Jack Dee, who hosts in two weeks’ time, will have appeared 16 times. The series has simply become the same old faces cracking the same old bleary jokes.
The era of social media has not been kind to Have I Got News For You. Increasingly, the “pre-written” gags – jokes or amusing news titbits delivered by the presenter, as opposed to the back-and-forth between panelists we are meant to believe is extemporaneous – simply plunder whatever videos went viral on Twitter earlier that week . The series was born into a radically different world to that in which we now reside. Now, on social media, any news story gets exhaustively discussed, riffed on, spoofed and otherwise picked apart within hours of breaking. To any viewer with a Twitter account, Merton and co’s punchlines land not just seconds but days late.
For many, however, the show’s biggest failing isn’t comic, but political. Despite it being somewhat farcically attacked as an example of radical left-wing programming by some commentators on the right, the fact is that Have I Got News For You is targeted squarely at the “centrist dad” market. I suppose it fits for Hislop – a man who says he’s voted for all three major parties in the past, and the Greens – and Merton, a comedian by nature who said in 2007 that he has only ever voted for Labor but doesn’t always vote. This is, I suppose, one of the tenets of comedy: no one should be above ridicule. Laughter wears no party rosette. Yes, the series has ridiculed the sitting Conservative government for plenty of its lies, hypocrisies and snafus (although the most damaging punches are pulled) – but it was also unsparing in its ribbing of Jeremy Corbyn when he was leader of the opposition, hitting him with the same tired jokes you’d find everywhere else. Making light of his allotment of him is one thing; belittling the entire socialist movement that propelled him is another. What exactly does the series stand for?
Have I Got News For You has also faced some amount of opprobrium down the years for its platforming of right-wing politicians such as Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg or Boris Johnson. Johnson in particular has always been an unsightly footnote to the programme’s reputation, having appeared as a panellist seven times between 1998 and 2006. While Johnson and Farage suffered their share of mockery and derision on the series, it nonetheless helped give them credibility – ossifying their images as politicians who could take a joke, who belonged in the spotlight of BBC primetime.
Posed this criticism in 2019, Hislop told Sky News’s Adam Boulton: “You have to deal with Boris. You can’t just say, ‘Well, anyone who’s charming and can get a laugh out of a room shouldn’t be on because people are too stupid to see through them’.” He pointed to other guests – Germaine Greer, Ken Livingstone, Heidi Allen – who had appeared on the series and not gone on to be this country’s leader. Far be it from me to divine any kind of subtle tonal difference in the way Johnson and these others were regarded by the series, but only one of them had a whole bonus disc dedicated to their mop-haired self on a Have I Got News for You DVD release. Hislop can play down the influence of the series, or play up the audience’s powers of discernment, but any show that brings in 4 million viewers every week (and considerably more in the era of Johnson) is going to carry some level of influence whether it acts like it or not.
I don’t know what it will take for Have I Got News For You to finally shut up shop. Once you’ve made it as far as 63 seasons, all reasonable bets are off. But the very fact that it’s able to just keep churning out episodes, pushing the same product year in, year out, speaks to a fatal lack of purpose. For a topical show, it sure feels a lot like yesterday’s news.
‘Have I Got News For You’ airs at 9pm on BBC One on Friday