Would No More ‘Have I Got News for You’ Be Good News?

Have I Got News for You, inspired by BBC Radio 4’s panel game The News Quiz, began in 1990 with Angus Deayton as the presenter and Paul Merton and Ian Hislop as the team captains. Using different rounds such as “Missing Words” and “Odd One Out,” the show gives guests a chance to lampoon the events and people who make the news each week. It has been nominated for and won a number of National Television Awards, Broadcasting Press Guild, and BAFTA prizes and in 2011, it received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the British Comedy Awards.

Part of what made it groundbreaking was its focus on satire–it was definitely a comedy show but it was comedy with a critical edge. This was primarily due to the two team captains. Paul Merton is a well respected improv comedian, known for his quick gags and surreal tangents. Ian Hislop is the editor of Private Eye, the country’s most famous satirical news magazine. Merton’s humour kept the programme funny while Hislop kept the criticism harsh. His favourite targets were hypocrisy and greed — both personified by Robert Maxwell, a former MP and media mogul who had sued Private Eye for libel and who tried to save his companies from bankruptcy by stealing from their pension funds; his death in 1991 Hislop gleefully (and repeatedly) celebrated on the show. A joke later made about Maxwell’s sons, who were going to court for conspiracy to defraud, led to the BBC and the show’s production company, Hat Trick, being fined for contempt of court in 1996. Attaching the word “allegedly” to any claim made on air as protection against court actions became a running gag.

The guests were usually writers and journalists, comedians, and politicians, many of whom also contributed to a palpable sense of anger. Edwina Curry MP and Liverpool politician Derek Hatton appeared on the same episode and were at each other’s throats in a very unpleasant manner, until Hislop and Merton eventually put them both in their places. Ironically, the political guests themselves, regardless of their own agendas, often became the figures of fun. In 1993, Roy Hattersley MP, after three last minute cancellations, was replaced by a tub of lard which was, they claimed, “imbued with much the same qualities and liable to give a similar performance.” Conservative politicians Sir Rhodes Boyson and Sir Teddy Taylor’s appearances clearly revealed they had no understanding of the show’s premise (by rattling on as if they were there to promote their party’s platforms), which led to their being openly mocked by Merton.

The show’s tension was also strengthened by the competition. Despite Hislop’s journalistic cred and Oxbridge education, Merton (who has a working class background and claims his only qualification is in metalwork) is the more frequent winner (he even won when his teammate was the tub of lard). Although the game aspect is presented as “all in good fun,” Hislop would occasionally seem genuinely aggrieved by his losses. However, the captains were happy to unite against presenter Deayton: they made fun of his supposed good looks and sex appeal and his lack of integrity with his frequent appearances in adverts.

It was actually this antagonism between the three stars which led to the show’s dramatic change in Series 24. In May of 2002, Angus Deayton was featured on the cover of News of the World, which exposed his sordid “drugs romp with vice girl.” The anticipation of that week’s episode was huge — though tickets for the filming are given away, they were supposedly selling for up to £500 (Jonathan Duffy, “Deayton in the Lion’s Den”, BBC News, 24 May 2002). Deayton started the show with a joke at his own expense, but when the camera cut to the two captains, neither was smiling. They immediately launched into a vicious attack, bringing the scandal into literally every answer they gave. Both brought copies of the vice girl article and later Merton unzipped his hoodie to reveal the newspaper’s cover printed on his t-shirt. They grilled him on details:

“Merton: You and this prostitute — how did you manage to get off paying her?

Deayton: I didn’t know she was a prostitute.

Merton: She didn’t tell you?

Hislop: But you must have paid her for the article. (Reading from the newspaper) ‘He made me groan all night… Angus was the best lover I’ve ever had.’ And you didn’t pay her?… There’s an awful lot of detail, isn’t there?

Merton: Yes, remind me of some of it.

Hislop: …I wonder if she was wired, do you think she was wired?

Merton: I don’t think she was the only one that was wired.”

Even just the exchange of looks between the three of them made for incredibly uncomfortable (but unmissable) viewing for the audience, which was packed with tabloid journalists. Later that year, more allegations against Deayton were made, and the BBC announced that “It was felt by all concerned that continued stories about Angus’s private life made him the subject of headlines, rather than commentating on them, and made his position as host of the topical satire programme untenable” (“Quiz Host Deayton Fired By BBC,” BBC News, 30 October 2002). Not everyone felt the move was fair: Stephen Fry announced he was “very, very, very cross with the BBC and Paul Merton and Ian Hislop for allowing Angus to go” and said he would boycott the show until Deayton was re-instated (“Fry Boycotts ‘Pathetic’ Quiz,” BBC News, 16 April 2003). However, Hislop and Merton were unapologetic. On The Very Best of ‘Have I Got News for You’ DVD commentary of the episode, Merton said the scandal was “just hanging in the air” and, although Hislop admitted their attack was “relentless”, both captains laughed at Deayton’s humiliation and regretted the lone time Merton let him off the hook and “went for the gag” instead.

Merton sat in as host for the following episode and while the media played the guessing game about a replacement, in the end the BBC went with a line-up of guest presenters, including Charles Kennedy, then leader of the Liberal Democrat Party, and Boris Johnson MP, whose episode was so surprisingly funny that when Best of the Guest Presenters Vol. 1 was released on DVD in 2003, it contained a bonus disc called “The Full Boris”. Many argue that Johnson’s guest presenting directly contributed to his rise in popularity (he became London’s mayor in 2008), despite his own sex scandals and overall unintentional buffoonery. The guest presenters have continued, with sports presenter Clare Balding hosting the opening of the 44th series this month.

Any show that has been going for that long will inevitably face criticism, and Have I Got News for You has. Many critics have called it tired and no longer relevant. In 2007, writer Will Self, a frequent guest, praised the show’s heyday:

“[It] was in the very cockpit of British satire: a prototype kind of reality TV in which unwitting politicians were parachuted into a jungle full of backbiting repartee. The combination of a witty dissection of the week’s current events and an opportunity for viewers to see their rulers — or wannabe rulers — excoriated in front of a live studio audience was a must-see, and for some years the programme formed part of the political discourse, as well as provoking myriad belly laughs.”

But then he concluded that the show was no longer cutting edge — Merton and Hislop were no longer angry, young men but “middle-aged and comfortable” and “the political class has got wise to the show’s format” as evidenced by Johnson’s success — and therefore he would not appear on it again (Will Self, “Have I Got News for You: TV’s Satire Has Lost Its Teeth,” London Evening Standard, 4 December 2007). The criticism continues, with most agreeing the show is not as good as it used to be.

And, quite frankly, it isn’t. Whether it’s just due to the length of the run or to the changing nature of the media or to the repercussions of various other scandals involving complaints against the BBC, the show has mellowed some. I confess, though, to really enjoying some of the more unlikely guest presenters, such as William Shatner — who clearly knew nothing about any of the stories of the week — for their pure silliness. But not all guest presenters work; their lines are scripted and not everyone can deliver caustic gags effectively (Balding, though likeable, failed a few times), and occasionally the guests and guest presenters seem chosen more for their media “hotness” than for the task at hand. The show should stick to satirizing the news (and leave the promotion of up-and-coming stars and TV programmes to others).

The show does now have some television competition: Mock the Week, 8 Out of 10 Cats and Stand Up for the Week all poke fun at current events. Whilst they are often funny, they are more about comedy and less about criticism; the news is used to set up opportunities for comedians to do their jokes and bits. Have I Got News for You may not be as politically edgy as it used to be, but compared to its contemporaries, its value still goes beyond simple entertainment.

This could be seen last series when spin doctor Alistair Campbell appeared as host. Private Eye has always been critical of Campbell, and Hislop (helped by guest Ross Noble) went after Campbell with gusto. The atmosphere was lighter than it might have been years ago, but Hislop still ripped into Tony Blair (who had just testified at the Leveson Inquiry and been called a war criminal by a protester) as well as Campbell himself for his role in Blair’s administration. He was so persistent at working in jabs that Merton was prompted to admit he admired Hislop’s stamina.

Already this series, Have I Got News for You has set itself apart with its handling of the Jimmy Savile story. Savile, who died last year, was a popular TV presenter who, it’s been recently revealed, may have sexually abused 60 victims over six decades. It’s been alleged that many in the BBC may have known about the abuse (Jamie Doward and Vanessa Thorpe, “Jimmy Savile Scandal Prompts Flood of Calls To Abuse Victims’ Groups,” The Guardian, 13 Oct. 2012). Other BBC shows that week kind of tiptoed around the subject: The News Quiz did a gag about BBC lawyers not allowing them to cover the scandal and Mock the Week‘s Andy Parsons did one line about not being able to get a joke about Savile’s show Jim’ll Fix It onto any BBC vehicle.

Have I Got News for You, though, went for the throat, and appropriately there weren’t many laughs. They addressed and put to rest the rumour that Merton, Hislop and Deayton had joked about Savile’s alleged paedophilia during outtakes when he appeared on the show in 1999 (the supposed transcript of the outtakes turned out to be a hoax). Hislop adamantly argued that anyone who had had actual knowledge of the crimes but didn’t tell should be prosecuted. The show took everyone to task for ignoring the fact that, as guest Graham Linehan said, Savile was “hiding in plain sight” (evidenced by a real clip from the Savile episode in which he made an incredibly creepy comment) and attacked the wider media for its double standards. Hislop added that the BBC would probably cut the segment on the scandal from the broadcast. It didn’t. Although many tabloids naturally criticised the show for “defending” the BBC, I found the episode intense and well done.

Despite its age and imperfections, Have I Got News for You is still funny but, more importantly, still relevant. We can mourn the loss of what it once was, but I prefer to appreciate the fact that it still exists. In a television schedule dominated by reality shows and talent contests, this show’s intelligence, wit, and criticism are still very welcome and most definitely needed.