Broadcasters are becoming bothered by a question that ought to have worried them years ago: why should Daily Mail readers pay the licence fee? If principled people ran the BBC, they would not need to ask it. They would declare that they did not want the tainted money of their enemies. They would say, "We deplore the sexist and racist assumptions of right-wing Conservative and UKIP voters, and want to be free as free to criticise them as anyone else."
Unfortunately for its reputation for probity, the BBC has been playing the hypocrite for years. On the one hand, it justifies taking a flat-rate tax from every household in the land by pretending that it is fair and balanced. On the other, whenever there is a political slant on drama and comedy it leans to the left (Jeremy Clarkson — the broadcasters' equivalent of the token black — being the exception to the rule).
In the past few months, the double standards have become too much for the BBC, or perhaps its audience, to bear. Its commissioning editors admit that they have not tried hard enough to find contrary voices. Even Radio 4, whose notion of fairness in comedy once meant balancing the soft Left with the hard Left, is inviting moderate conservatives from the Murdoch press on to The News Quiz.
Both the BBC and its conservative critics miss the point, however, when they fall into the language of left and right. True, broadcasters patronise (in every sense of the word) Mark Steel and Jeremy Hardy, who are genuine far-left comedians, even if they are a little too keen on becoming national treasures for my taste. But they ration the appearances of Stewart Lee, the best left-wing comedian. To their evident disapproval, Lee can be genuinely unsettling, and has never shown a desire to be any kind of treasure. Dara Ó Briain, Tim Minchin, Dave Gorman and Robin Ince are allowed on air. Once you might have called their willingness to satirise religion left-wing. But the post-modern Left treats religion with nervous deference — with the exception of Christianity, of course, the token black of white liberal outrage. It devotes its energies to denouncing "militant atheists", who never kill anyone, rather than religious militants, who murder with abandon.
These exceptions aside, the bulk of comics who appear on Have I Got News for You, Mock the Week or Radio 4's satirical shows are not left-wing in any recognisable sense. They are happy with wealth, particularly their own wealth, and so sexist they veer towards misogyny. Crucially, they have no instinctive sympathy with the working class, which was once the main object of left-wing concern. The reverse side of the coin that sees them damn Mail readers as provincial bigots is the strong dislike of the urban poor — most evident in David Walliams and Matt Lucas's Little Britain. Today's political comedy is the laughter of the privileged scoffing at those beneath them. Racism and homophobia are their only forbidden topics. Anyone who can remember the comedy of the 1970s should be grateful for these small advances. But come on, how can a comedy circuit that finds a place for Jimmy Carr, a tax-dodging hypocrite worthy of the pen of a Dickens or a Molière, be described as left-wing or even centrist?