Has political satire gone too far?

‘Satire that is polemic can turn ugly and authoritarian’

John Lloyd is a contributing editor to the Financial Times, and the author of ‘What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics’

Satirists often say that their trade is necessary to excoriate the decisions or prick the egos of the powerful: that they are necessary to the functioning of a democratic society; that by wit they can say what commentary and news and even polemic cannot. And, yes, like the news media, their free activity is a sign of political health; their absence or persecution a sign of sickness.

Satire, however, plays a different role than it did between the 17th and 20th centuries, in the hands of writers such as Defoe and Swift and caricaturists such as James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson. They spoke up for people in pre- or partly democratic societies. Today’s satirists are a substantial part of one of the great powers in free societies – the media – and, since the latter part of the 20th century, have substituted themselves for news. The most influential satire of the 1960s, the BBC TV programme That Was the Week That Was (1962-1963), aped the style of news magazine programmes. In the half century since, satire and wit have become one highly influential way in which current events, and politicians in particular, are viewed – from the puppets in Spitting Image (1984-1996) to contemporary panel shows such as Have I Got News for You?

In the US, programmes such as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report have displaced news and documentary as the main way in which young viewers learn about current events. But the conservative US media have taken the movement much further, with commentators such as Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh using sarcasm and polemic to fuel and lead the Tea Party and other movements of the right. They are not, in general, witty, nor do they use the skills of impersonation employed by more liberal colleagues such as Stewart.

There is nothing a free society can or should do about this. But a concern to preserve freedom doesn’t mean a denial of the effects this has on our politics. The mockery of politicians and public officials has opened the door to a media-led populism in the US that goes far beyond the puncturing of political pomposity or a valve for public anger. It transforms the media into activists with shifting causes, accountable only to audience maximisation.

We need a public reflection on media power. And we should see the rise of the Tea Party as a sign. Satire that is polemic can turn ugly and authoritarian when it has powerful media behind it. To guard against this, the importance of a news and current affairs regime that privileges explanation, balance and analysis remains central: so far, in the UK, it has. When we know what is happening, are able to think about it and have easy access to competing prisms through which events are seen, then satire operates as it should: as comic commentary making a serious point, as a sharp tap on the shoulder, part of the endless argument of politics and about a good society.

‘There is no argument against laughter’

Antony Jay is co-author of the political TV comedies ‘Yes Minister’ and ‘Yes, Prime Minister’. The stage adaptation of ‘Yes, Prime Minister’ opens at the Gielgud Theatre on September 16

My definition of satire is a little narrower than John Lloyd’s. I don’t see satire as something that takes the place of news but as a weapon used by people who have a political objective, as a means of exposing error, winning arguments and changing policies.

For this reason, co-author Jonathan Lynn and I have always denied that Yes Minister (1980-1984) was a satirical programme, though our denial does not seem to have stopped anyone from describing it as one. We are not advocating any policies; we simply see that the world of politics and government is rich with comic opportunities and possibilities, and it seems a pity not to expose, explore and exploit them.

I felt much the same about That Was the Week That Was, which I worked on briefly in 1962. It contained some satirical sketches but its real driving force was the realisation that, as a result of current affairs coverage on television, the TV audience was as open to jokes about politics and politicians as it had been to jokes about nagging wives and domineering mothers-in-law. Much of what was described as satirical had no objective of political or social reform; it was simply comedy that had found a wonderful new source of material.

I suppose the nearest we came to satire with Yes Minister was an episode in which an idealistic junior minister comes forward with a plan to abolish smoking. It transpires that, despite its public protestations, the government has no intention of abolishing smoking because it cannot afford to lose the revenue from tobacco duty. This sort of official hypocrisy was the fertile pasture from which we harvested much of our comedy, but we were not trying to get smoking abolished. We were just happy to get the laughs.

What distinguishes true satire from ordinary comedy is that it focuses a collective antagonism on political or social issues. There are many ways of participating in the debate on current controversies, mostly by deploying facts and arguments on one side or the other. But there is no argument against laughter. From time to time it was suggested that we should get rid of the studio audience for Yes Minister. We refused: with no audience the politicians and civil servants could dismiss the programme as some smart BBC people attacking the great institutions of Britain in a tasteless and not particularly entertaining way. With an audience of 300 people laughing at their antics and arguments, they had to pretend to enjoy it. To appear not to have a sense of humour is near-fatal in British politics.

The targets of satire are people and policies. Spitting Image (1984-1996) is a good example of satirising people – we still remember Margaret Thatcher’s handbag and David Owen and his miniature David Steel, more than 20 years on. Bird, Bremner and Fortune has produced some brilliant demolitions of government policies. Yes Minister did not go down either of those roads. If we were satirising anything, it was the system that made ministers and officials behave in the ways they do. But we did not fool ourselves that we would have acted any differently if we had been in their place.

‘The Simpsons are the most effective subversives of our time’

James Naughtie is a journalist and presenter of Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme

I understand Antony Jay’s desire to peel the label of satire from Yes Minister and let it remain simply something that made us laugh, free of any ideological purpose except the exposure of the ludicrous in all its glory. Yet it’s hard to resist the feeling that when comedy has a target to which it returns again and again (because the invitation is irresistible) it starts to mutate from clever and uplifting commentary to something with a steelier purpose. Sometimes satire is forced upon us because we have no choice.

Take the Tea Party, of which John Lloyd speaks, which is bringing into its expanding tent a significant minority of Americans who appear happy to believe that because they think government has got too big, too intrusive and too arrogant it is probably also right that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim, and that there are people in his administration who pore over perfectly-crafted plans to turn the country into a socialist state. I’m writing this in Kentucky, and having spent some time with the Tea Party forces here – good, decent folks who care about their families and their neighbours – I’ve concluded that the last time I came across a political movement with such an inability to laugh at itself was when Militant was tearing the Labour party apart in the 1970s and 1980s. The parallels are eerie. And po-faced high seriousness, just like ideological correctness, needs to be laughed at.

John is right to say that the success of the marvellous Daily Show is because of the shrivelling of proper and diverse broadcast journalism (and the dying out of much of the best of American written journalism) and that it cannot – should not have to – replace a culture of lively political discourse. But without this kind of sharp comedy, the American political scene would be threatening indeed, with armed camps baying at each other across a desert, each watching TV channels and listening to radio shock jocks that reinforce the “truth” but never question it. That’s why politics in the US needs more than a tap on the shoulder – it needs an electric shock and a belly laugh.

I’d argue that the most successful expression of this spirit, which takes us all the way to James Gillray and his ilk, has been The Simpsons. Nothing has caused more Americans in the modern age to laugh at themselves and to look in the mirror with a quizzical gaze. In undermining the worst kind of public hypocrisy and organised group-think, Homer and Marge are the most effective subversives of our time. Like all satire, they arrived simply because they were required and that’s why they’re not going to go away.

‘People want satirists to fight their battles for them’

Rory Bremner is a satirist known for his work on ‘Spitting Image’ and ‘Bremner, Bird and Fortune’

I’m amused, and intrigued, by the perennial debate about the health of satire. Often it’s a sign that the political opposition (or, as Jim Naughtie suggests, the media) is weak and ineffectual, and in some way people want the satirists to fight their battles for them.

I disagree with John Lloyd. I don’t think satirists (at least any with a sense of self-irony) make, or should make, any grand claims for themselves or their power. In fact, often it is the opposite. Remember Peter Cook pointing out how satire in the 1930s “did so much to prevent the rise of Adolf Hitler”? And I imagine most people in Britain knew Saddam was a tyrant. We didn’t need a satirist to tell us that but it didn’t stop Britain from arming him. (We did satirise that, by the way.)

In any case, there has been a progressive pejoration of the word. One problem is that everyone is a satirist these days: a kind of weary, “come-off-it” cynicism pervades most news media, constantly blurring the line between news reporting and matey, “aren’t-they-all-silly” editorialising, with the BBC’s Nick Robinson one of the chief culprits. This, and politicians’ behaviour, leaves satire (of our MPs at least) almost redundant. Certainly if there is no respect, no deference any more, much of the tension, the element of shock or outrage, is dissipated. “You’ve got so much material these days!” people constantly say to me. Which may be true but also means that the reality is now beyond parody and, of itself, ridiculous.

Satire changes as society changes, as writers and comedians identify new and pressing targets. Alongside Spitting Image, Harry Enfield’s Loadsamoney was one of the most effective satirical creations of the late 1980s, managing to capture and ridicule a whole culture in one character. In the early 1990s two sitcoms, Absolutely Fabulous and One Foot in the Grave, began to satirise vacuous excess and a raging impotence against political correctness respectively. Also around that time the media news monster grew in (self)-importance, and Chris Morris’s The Day Today was there to savage its almighty ego. Now, with the politicians themselves held in near-contempt, it is the culture of government that forms the target of The Thick of It, just as it was the Blair/Campbell relationship that preoccupied me on Bremner, Bird and Fortune a few years earlier.

I always felt the strength of John Bird and John Fortune in my show was that, while my comedy (being an impressionist) was more ad hominem, their interviews identified new targets and sacred cows – chief executives of utilities, the discipline of the market, arrogant bankers (this long before the financial crisis) while their dinner party sketches ridiculed the prejudices, pretensions and hypocrisy of all of us. Like Antony Jay, the Johns would never suggest they were any better or had the answers. They just observed and drew out what was there anyway.

‘I am less convinced that satire is good for democracy’

Jonathan Coe is the author of novels including ‘What a Carve Up!’ and ‘The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim’

I think Rory hits the nail on the head when he says that “everyone is a satirist these days”. What was, back in the 1960s, a genuinely galvanising movement, sweeping aside centuries of conservatism and deference, has now become a sort of toothless default setting.

It’s interesting that America currently has a burgeoning rightwing satire movement. Satire can do nothing if it can’t challenge the establishment, and the establishment in the UK is broadly left-liberal, which leaves our TV satirists with very little to say. The ideological standpoint of most intelligent comedy in this country has not shifted since the 1980s, when it became unacceptable to be anything other than anti-racist, anti-sexist and anti-privilege. Since even rightwing politicians are nowadays obliged to adopt this rhetoric (in public, at least), the satirists and the political establishment find themselves on the same side. Inevitably, then, the new generation of satirists – if there is going to be one – will need to look more closely, need to find newer, fresher targets, but nobody seems to be doing it yet.

As the years go by, in any case, I become less and less convinced that satire is good for democracy. When I wrote What a Carve Up! in the early 1990s as a response to the Thatcher years, Yes Minister was a huge source of inspiration. It still impresses me that a show could be so thoroughly cynical and yet so full of warm, loveable characters: an amazing trick to pull off.

However, far from tearing down the established order, most satire (except in a few very great, very extreme cases – Swift’s A Modest Proposal being the obvious example), does the exact opposite. It creates a welcoming space in which like-minded people can gather together and share in comfortable hilarity. The anger, the feelings of injustice they might have been suffering beforehand are gathered together, compressed and transformed into bursts of laughter, and after discharging them they feel content and satisfied. An impulse that might have translated into action is, therefore, rendered neutral and harmless. I remember a recent edition of Radio 4’s News Quiz where the comedian Jeremy Hardy brought this up: after cracking a series of (brilliant) jokes about failed bankers collecting enormous bonuses, he suddenly said, “Why are we laughing about this? We should be taking to the streets.” He was right. So it’s no wonder that the rich and the powerful have no objection to being mocked. They understand that satire can be a useful safety valve, and a powerful weapon for preserving the status quo.

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