Newsright? with John Cleese

Yesterday I wrote a letter of complaint to the electricity board and happened to mention that I write articles for the Guardian and the Observer. Neither the Guardian nor Observer has ever received, let alone published one of my articles but I do write for them nonetheless.

This is something I wrote after watching comedy actor John Cleese being interviewed on the BBC TV current affairs programme, Newsnight.  I recommend you watch the interview before reading further. My article is below the video.


The interview lasted all of ten minutes and yet revealed more about Cleese and the BBC than we’ve seen for a long time.

Poor journalism from Emily Maitless is par for the course these days, as with the vast majority of BBC interviewers. More like this and we’ll need to rename the show “Newsfight” Eager for that ever elusive sound-bite, sought in a bid to prove that broadcast television isn’t a dying media after all, Maitless talks over her guest, asks abrasive questions and gets defensive when journalistic integrity is discussed. All of it a wasted effort because former funnyman Cleese manages to pick holes in his own argument whilst his point is proved as each cringeworthy minute follows another.

A life-long moderate, neither overtly left nor right, anybody who knows a little about John Cleese’s upbringing will know he could hardly have been anything else. Brought up by affluent parents in a seaside town, he and his family did well out of the Establishment but meeting up with future Pyhton creators at Footlights Cambridge just as post-war austerity began to give way to early sixties liberalism, is it any wonder he’s a lifelong moderate advocating “old fashioned” education?

Cleese presents a graph on a clipboard showing the results of a poll conducted in 35 counties to determine whether consumers believe their national media are reporting accurately. Ranking last is the UK, below Albania and the Netherlands, places that to all intents and purposes sound like a panacea of responsible journalism. That Albania has just one national newspaper with a readership far below the average UK tabloid is telling enough but the very fact that the UK recognise the untrustworthy nature of the media surely says a lot about the average Brit? If it does, it isn’t enough for our former Fawtlty.

Cleese is leaving the UK, he says. Finally he’s had enough of right wing Governments and biased news. Fair enough. I’d be right behind you if I could, chuck but let’s turn the clock back a little (not fifty years as Cleese would no doubt prefer) to just some months ago when the very same comedian lashed out at the increasing diversity of London and seemed to mourn the “parent” (I.e British) culture. The argument from those on the left was simple; if everyone subscribes to the “parent” culture then there can be no diversity. Without diversity there is stagnation, a point that seems to have been missed as yet another of the “old school” bemoan the lack of white faces in the capital.

With my psychologist’s hat on I’m tempted to say Cleese is suffering from a case Transference. His disappointment and anger at the British people for voting for Brexit seems to have been turned on the media. He’s absolutely correct when he says the level of televised debate about Brexit and Proportional Representation referendum were awful. Fair enough, they were fact-free dumb-downed mini-debates but were they presented in this way by soundbite-seeking TV executives to appeal to a mass audience or were they deliberate attempts from one or both camps to fudge the facts behind the question in order to influence the result? Perhaps these are the questions Cleese should be asking?

As the question about journalistic integrity is posed by our most famous comedy export, the answer it seems, is behind John’s back, where spinning severed heads, breasts, big feet and other Python imagery seek to undermine any point, valid or not, that he’s trying to make.

The ability to find the funny side to a serious situations is the mark of any skilful comedian and as Cleese chuckles and guffaws at the ridiculousness of our media plight, perhaps the real joke is hiding in plain sight. One production gaff follows another as a collection of off-the-wall images are irritatingly displayed behind two people trying to have a very earnest discussion about the state of things, seems to be the stuff of Python, harking back to Arthur “Two Sheds” Jackson and the Newsnight-esque shows the team would lampoon with such glee. Or is it funnier that the man pointing out this country’s shortcomings is escaping to an island that was one of the world’s most famous tax havens?

Cleese should be applauded for reaching his old age and still caring about the generations to come. It’s good to hear him speak his mind while his fellow pundits are too often busy self-sensoring themselves to say anything meaningful. Cleese is at least honest about what he despises, but with a hint of prejudice here and a sweeping generalisation there, it’s hard to escape the feeling that this is a man very much the product of his generation. It’s tempting to call him ‘out of date’ or ‘out of touch’ but with the political and economic stability of the UK very much up in the air, it’s perhaps safer to sit on the fence and watch the sheep as they try to fly.

Analysis by

Martin Gregory

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