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Stand up for the Comics

by Tim Gosill with respone by Mark Thomas

TONY HARCUP wants to know why radical comedians are taking over from probing journalists on TV.

IF I SEE one more scene on TV in which some hapless receptionist, security guard or press officer is picked on by a crusading comedian with pretensions to being an investigative journalist, then I'll ... I'll what exactly? I'll take a film crew unannounced to the studios and get myself thrown out for the sake of some good TV pictures.

Such tired antics on the Mark Thomas Comedy Product and Michael Moore's Awful Truth wouldn't matter if they didn't make such great claims for themselves.

"Welcome to the people's democratic republic of television," declares Michael Moore. The trouble is, his shows are no more democratic than the mainstream he mocks. As his audience whoops at another self-congratulatory introduction to yet another stunt, the "victims" he's supposed to speak on behalf of don't get much of a word in.

Mark Thomas often appears equally smug about his stitch-ups, which range from the sublime (giving PR advice to the Indonesian armed forces) to the ridiculous (trailing the high-kicking "showgirls of truth" around the foyers of government departments). Sure, they can be funny and they have something to say. But so are The Simpsons. Yet they claim to do more, to expose "the truth".

There is a blurring of the edges between journalism and comedy, with comedians like Jeremy Hardy and Mark Steel having broadsheet columns and TV stars from Chris Morris to Ali G using the interview format to mock the great, the good and the insignificant.

Confusing fact and fiction leaves me uneasy. If a show's purpose is entertainment -- which is what comedy is for -- then what ethical standards are applied when people are championed or ridiculed. Is there a Code of Conduct for comedians?

A colleague recently asked me: "Why do I can find out more from such comedy shows than from documentaries or the news?" If that's true, it's an indictment of our news and current affairs output.

The comedians are occupying the ground vacated by much of mainstream news and current affairs, which no longer seem interested in investigating serious issues.

The level of investigative journalism is becoming beyond a joke, and journalists have only got ourselves to blame when people think these jokers do our jobs better than we do.

Response from Mark Thomas:

'Do it yourself!'

A comic's retort TONY HARCUP'S Gripe (November) about comics and journalism was an unclassic rehash of a debate that has been going on for a while.

But why should we have this great deference to journalism and why shouldn't comics be involved in current affairs? Who says you have to take the great and good seriously? Why is it that so many journalists I speak to have to trade criticism for access to our leaders?

The point missed in the Gripe is that when a person laughs at the difference between what a politician says and what a politician does they are making a critical judgement on their elected representatives.

If journalists feel they have vacated the ground for comics to rush in, the answer is simple: stop whining and get on with doing a good job.

Mark Thomas
Channel 4 TV