English newspaper columnist and political commentator, Owen Jones, shares his thoughts on the political significance of satire in this op-ed, first published by The Guardian in December, 2014.
There’s nothing the establishment hates more than ridicule – that’s why it’s vital for a healthy democracy
The world of social media is a swirling, sometimes dizzying mess of contradictions. A powerful force for mobilising political change, or sometimes a glorified mass of torches and pitchforks; a means to instantly engage and debate with people of all leanings and all continents, or a means to obsessively harass, troll and threaten strangers; a tool to broaden horizons, or to be bombarded with nonsensical junk. But our social media, increasingly, are assuming a role that is crucial in a democracy: satirising and ridiculing the powerful.
Political satire is booming online, where taking the mighty and the powerful down a peg or two is a sport. On the web you can find Vine videos of George Osborne looking spaced out at prime minister’s questions; and the mocking of broken political promises, from “We’re all in it together” to the trebling of tuition fees. Some of it is crude, unpolished or just not very funny. But thank goodness social media have taken up the mantle – because there is all too little of it on our TV screens.
Satire is so subversive – and often politically fatal for those who rule – because it exposes the absurdities of power. Authority attempts to assert itself partly through a veneer of respectability and seriousness. When that is stripped away, its legitimacy can be lost, along with our subservience. But as Jeremy Paxman asked a few months ago, “Where is the Spitting Image of today? … Imagine the sport the show could have with Cameron and Clegg. But I don’t care whether it’s puppets or cartoons or real people. Just give us some decent satire.”
The humorous ridiculing of the powerful has a proud pedigree in Britain. Back in the mid-19th century, it was Punch magazine that championed satire, being sympathetic to the rising demands of democracy against the country’s oligarchic, unaccountable elite. More recently, satire has episodically flourished on our TV screens: That Was The Week That Was audaciously challenged the stultifying deference of the early 60s; Not the Nine O’Clock News stuck it to the political elite as Thatcherism dawned; more recently, we had Bremner, Bird and Fortune.
Yes, we have the likes of Have I Got News For You; and The Thick Of It is a modern classic, even if it doesn’t skewer actual living politicians. But nothing has the bite and reach of Spitting Image. In its 12-year run, it reached up to 15 million people each week. Margaret Thatcher was a hectoring alpha male bullying her pathetically cowardly cabinet; Labour was a shambolic, incompetent mess; and even the royal family got a kicking, once shown moving to a council estate because they couldn’t afford the poll tax.
Look at the US, by contrast. Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show reaches a disproportionately young audience, entertaining and informing them. Stephen Colbert takes on the US’s ranting rightwing shock jocks. Depressingly, we’re even exporting satirical talent such as Birmingham-born John Oliver, who presents Last Week Tonight on HBO.
There is a counter-argument too: for if there’s one thing we don’t lack in modern Britain, it’s cynicism about our political elite. Our politicians have never been loved, and now they are even less popular than most tropical diseases. But that’s not altogether healthy.
Anger at our political elite seldom fuels action to do anything about it, engendering instead an enraged passivity: people scream at the television set rather than taking to the streets. That actually suits the political elite rather well, because it makes them less accountable. It also undermines those of us who want radical change: if you believe all politicians are liars and charlatans, then you are less likely to see politics as a realistic vehicle to transform society.
But quality satire does not just scrutinise and ridicule the great and the good. It helps engage those who otherwise find politics tedious. Politics can be made fun, raucous and appealing (at least for those not on the receiving end of it). Maybe – as the likes of Rory Bremner suggest – politics has become stuffed with so many dreary on-message types that there’s too little comedy fodder. But while Ed Miliband is routinely mocked by many newspapers, Nigel Farage and David Cameron have largely escaped such treatment in most of the press.
It is all too often those at the bottom of society who are demonised and derided. There’s too little punching up. Where is the scrutinising – and yes, ridiculing – of the poverty-paying bosses, the tax dodgers, or the bankers responsible for economic disaster? Satire can be brilliantly effective at encouraging us to challenge the way our society is run. It is a more crucial element of our democracy than we perhaps think, and we should fight to bring it back to the prime-time slots it deserves.