I've got news for them, jibe at Harry was an ugly sneer
Here is a nasty surprise. Over the past few days, I have found myself in agreement with the prototypical Tory smoothy Grant Shapps. I have also been on the side of the great army of the humourless and easily offended over a questionable joke about the royal family on the BBC. I have been shoulder to shoulder with a huffy old general and a coalition minister. It has all been rather uncomfortable.
There is a connection between Shapps's comments about the BBC's "institutional bias" and the row surrounding a comic routine about Prince Harry on Have I Got News For You. There, reading from an autocue, the programme's guest presenter Jo Brand told a joke about the royal christening. "George's godparents include Hugh van Cutsem," she said. "I presume that's a nickname, as in Hugh van cuts 'em and Harry then snorts 'em."
The problem with this joke is not that the godparent's name is wrong – he's called William van Cutsem (his father Hugh died last month). Nor is there a problem of taste. The royal family are fair game for jokes, and serving in the armed forces does not automatically, as the former Chief of the General Staff Lord Dannatt seemed to think, imbue virtue.
There is something else going on here, which has more to do with gossip than humour. Satire shows like Have I Got News For You represent the new establishment. The regulars are amusing, well-known faces, with an acceptable set of liberal values. Their guests are fellow new establishment members or public figures who would normally be a target of the programme and who are there to play along with the joke.
The satire is at the expense of those in power, the old establishment, and is entertaining for viewers, who tend to share the programme's cynicism about politics, amusement at the royal family, scepticism about the behaviour of acceptable celebrity targets.
It may not be openly biased, but one can be sure that it will never discomfit its audience by taking an unpopular line or embarrassing the wrong sort of people – that is, our sort of people.
The Prince Harry routine shows to perfection how this works. The famous comedians are pulling the curtain back just an inch or two on their own charmed world. The subtext to the joke is that those on the inside have heard that the prince is a user of drugs. On the programme, satirically and with the usual aren't-we-daring? references to lawyers, they are sharing this titbit of gossip with you.
Whether it is true or false no longer matters. A nasty rumour has been put into the public domain in the gratifying knowledge that a bit of publicity will accrue, and the catch-all defence of comedy can be deployed: it was only a joke, for heaven's sake! There is, of course, absolutely no risk of libel: for someone to sue would merely give the story more publicity.
Admittedly, Grant Shapps is hardly in a position to give anyone lectures on transparency and plain dealing. He used to present himself to the world as the internet marketing guru Michael Green, has anonymously removed disobliging parts of his biography from Wikipedia, and, as Channel Four's Michael Crick recently revealed, there is something distinctly whiffy about some of the endorsements published online for his firm HowToCorp. He may in this case be guilty of delivering crude threats to the BBC as a general election appears on the horizon, but there is something in his claim of BBC bias.
For those of us who share the same left-of-centre values, the corporation's default position may simply seem to be one of decent, civilised values (and Shapps' attack on the brilliant Mark Easton is particularly misconceived), but the coded gossip about Prince Harry shows its uglier side.
The laughter of Have I Got News For You has an easy moral superiority to it, a whiff of the prefect's room. It definitely pays to belong to the new establishment.