Dodgy Covid excuses, mad minstrels and the purposes of satire…

The Heege Manuscript (National Library of Scotland)

It’s not often that I wish to convey words from a Cabinet office spokesperson, but here goes.

The wielder of official dodgy excuses says the Covid inquiry does not have the power to request “unambiguously irrelevant information”.

This is because retired judge Heather Hallett, who is leading the inquiry, is demanding to see unredacted WhatsApp messages between former prime minister Boris Johnson and 40 senior government ministers.

There is more in that official quote, but blah-de-blah and all that. Those three highlighted words say a lot about priorities in modern Britain.

‘Unambiguously irrelevant information…’

After all, too many newspapers and broadcasters are happy to spiel off “unambiguously irrelevant information” about Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby. We’ve been wading through the stuff for days, with even the BBC tirelessly pushing this story to the top of the attention pile.

If I never have to hear Phil and Holly mentioned again, it will be three days too soon. Are people really interested in every twitch of this tedious story?

Perhaps they are, perhaps it’s just me – and perhaps interminably jabbering on about the squabble between two pampered daytime TV presenters, and the faintly grubby reasons behind their row, is just more compelling than hearing yet more about politics.

Certainly, today’s edition of the Sun hopes so, splashing with the headline: “Defiant Holly Back On Monday.” Is that the most newsworthy story of the day – or just a way to downplay a possible Covid cover-up, as reported by the front pages of the Guardian, the Mirror and, surprisingly, the Telegraph?

The Telegraph suggests the government is withholding messages to protect Rishi Sunak, rather than Johnson.

Ah, slippery Sunak, pretending to be Mr Reasonable when really he’s as prone to dodging the truth as Johnson. He’s a weird sort of squeaky-clean fibber, rather than a flamboyant one – and he’s up to his Thunderbirds eyebrows in dirty Covid water, as he was in Johnson’s cabinet at the time.

Johnson agreed to hold a Covid inquiry, and it’s only now being dragged into life. As Simon Jenkins usefully points out in his Guardian column, Sweden has already published a report into its controversial Covid policy, and it runs to 1,700 pages. Yet still we fumble and fudge our way along.

As the inquiry is tasked with discovering “how decisions were made”, all government messages are relevant, whether or not they embarrass Johnson, Sunak or the pair of ’em.

Another headline in the Guardian refers to ‘Mad and offensive’ texts…

But these are not WhatsApp or phone messages between ministers, but medieval texts, as the full headline makes clear: “‘Mad and offensive’ texts shed light on the role played by minstrels in medieval society”.

Their ‘job’ ran from “mocking kings and priests to encouraging audiences to get drunk”, according to newly discovered texts at the National Library of Scotland. The texts are part of a booklet known as the Heege Manuscript, discovered by Dr James Wade of the University of Cambridge.

Wade believes echoes of minstrel humour can be found “in shows such as Mock The Week, situational comedies and slapstick”.

“The self-irony and making audiences the butt of the joke are still very characteristic of British stand-up comedy,” he said.

Mock The Week (BBC)

This is true, although it is an unfortunate example. Mock The Week was dropped by the BBC, seemingly after pressure from Tory-appointed figures at the corporation who objected to the piss being taken out of the government.

That’s also why, at a guess, Have I Got News For You always contains at least one, er, laboured Keir Starmer joke or jibe, almost as if a new BBC rule demands this in the name of satirical balance.

Wade relishes the evidence of medieval snarking, saying: “Manuscripts often preserve relics of high art. This is something else. It’s mad and offensive, but just as valuable. Stand-up comedy has always involved taking risks and these texts are risky! They poke fun at everyone, high and low.”

Poking fun at everyone, high and low, remains the job of satirists today. No-one should be immune, but poking fun at those in power remains the most important piss-take of all.

Especially when you consider the satire-defeating politics we’ve had to endure in the past few years.

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