Just lately I’ve been lurking around the forums of some other satire sites. Basically, I still miss the old Humorfeed members forum and I’m looking for somewhere else to hang out. However, I was more than a little disturbed by what I found. Rather than finding a community of like-minded satirists, dedicated to ridiculing the lunacies of our ruling classes, I instead stumbled upon a bunch of whining middle class smart asses busy making fun of the poor and disadvantaged. Far from challenging the establishment position, they seemed to revel in reinforcing the stereotypes of ‘workshy dole scroungers’ and ‘chavs’ perpetuated by privileged elite who run this country. For want of a better term, this effectively constitutes ‘establishment satire’ – it supports the establishment’s values rather than questioning them.
All which put me in mind of something by Jonathan Coe which I’d read in the Guardian Review section a few months ago. There he’d made some pertinent points about modern day British satire. The gist of his comments were that most satirists tend to be politically centre-left, slightly sneery, middle class, Guardian-readers, as are their primary audience. Consequently, they simply preach to the converted, reinforcing, rather than challenging, their prejudices. This, he argues, simply generates a low-level cynical chuckling which allows the political powers-that-be to simply carry on doing what they want to do, unchallenged. (Coe puts it a lot more eloquently than my paraphrasing would indicate). I was fascinated to read his comments, as they put into words my own growing frustration with what passes for satire in the UK’s media. Too much of it is effectively ‘institutionalised’, being produced by people from exactly the same background as our political masters, with, not surprisingly, many of the same prejudices as them, too. It all operates at the level of ‘sniping’ at anyone in a position of authority, seizing on whatever the current headline political story/scandal is, without ever engaging in any deep critiques of the prevailing political and economic system. But, of course, they don’t want to engage in any deep analysis. What they really want to do is preach, to use ‘satire’ as a way of pursuing their own moralistic crusades. Just look at the way the default form of TV ‘satire’ as become the direct to camera rant – no actual analysis or thought, just a stream of abuse.
One of the worst offenders in terms of moral crusading masquerading as satire is Private Eye and it’s editor Ian Hislop. Their attempts to always take the moral high ground with regard to politicians, the media, sex scandals and so on, are, frankly, nauseating. Hislop’s recent rants (there’s that word again) on Have I Got News For You about Judges effectively creating a privacy law by the back door by allowing the use of injunctions to prevent the reporting of politicians’, sports personalities and celebrities affairs, was unbelievably pompous. Presumably, in Hislop’s world, there’s no need for a privacy law as, if people act ‘immorally’, by his standards, then they are fair game for the media, regardless of whether there is any public interest in raking their private lives across the media. If you act ‘morally’, then you’ve got nothing to hide. It’s obvious that he’s less interested in using the information he’s being denied for satirical purposes, than in pursuing his personal crusade against ‘immorality’.
He and Private Eye are also responsible for another aspect of modern UK satire I despise – the ‘pox on all your houses’ approach, whereby, in the interests of ‘balance’, they attack all targets indiscriminately, regardless of political ideology, social class or economic wealth. Since when has satire been required to be ‘balanced’? Indeed, by denying themselves a clear ideological perspective from which to launch their satire, such ‘satirists’ are removing any chance of meaningful analysis. Basically, they’re just interested in the quick cheap laugh, rather than any long-term comic enquiry of the issues at hand. This approach also undermines a fundamental plank of satire – that it focuses on those who have power, whether that power be political, economic or social, and calls them to account.
All of which brings us back to the kind of people these ‘satirists’ actually are – liberal, university educated, middle class types, in the main. The class aspect is important – it helps explain their animosity toward the less well off. Their relatively privileged status, as witnessed by their university educations, is also significant – they are beneficiaries of the current system and therefore have a vested interest in maintaining it, rather than attacking it. That’s why they seem strangely reluctant to satirise the government’s attempts to destroy state education and the National Health Service (NHS) – they can afford to send their kids to private schools and to pay for private health care. Indeed, a significant number of the bastards I observed whilst lurking on those message boards seemed to spend a fair amount of time disparaging the NHS and the whole concept of universal health care. Perhaps they think that it is ‘radical’ to do this, taking satire in new directions.
Personally, I just think that they’re obnoxious over privileged bastards who have no concept of how ordinary people live. However, their ‘liberal’ consciences dictate to them that they should at least be seen to be concerned at the inequities of the system, and concerned at the plight of those less well off than them. But that’s where it stops. To them the poor and needy are, at best, a ‘project’ to be pursued on their days off in order to salve their consciences, at worst, the poor are there to be patronised in order to stroke their middle class egos. The last thing they want is for the lower orders to actually get their filthy hands on the levers of power. God forbid! They might start trying to change the system to give ordinary people fairer access to the likes of health care and education. Hence the return of the concept of the ‘deserving’ poor (who know their place and are happy to be patted on the head by the middle classes and vote Tory), and ‘undeserving’ poor (who protest and steadfastly refuse to buy into the lie that the existing status quo will benefit them in the long term, if only they’d keep unquestioningly supporting it). A concept gleefully endorsed by ‘establishment satire’, which joins with the Tory press in characterising the non-obsequious ‘undeserving’ poor as a bunch of idle dole scroungers.
That then, is ‘establishment satire’, which seems to be inexorably on the rise. It gives the impression of being radical, whilst really reinforcing the status quo. It’s the kind of satire that the establishment tacitly ‘approves’ of and allows to exist. Unfortunately, it abandons what should be the central plank of satire – that it takes arms on behalf of the powerless against the powerful. ‘Establishment satire’ instead attacks the victims of the system, allowing the powerful – who should be its main target – to escape without censure. So, having condemned the rant as a satirical form, that’s my rant on the subject. I’m not saying that I’m exempt from these criticisms myself. All too often I feel that I’m preaching to the converted. All too often I go for the easy targets and the cheap laughs. All too often I pursue my own personal agenda to the detriment of any satirical purpose in my stories. However, I like to think that I’ve never lost sight of the real enemy – the powerful – and that, by tackling subject matter the likes of Private Eye would never deign to touch with a barge pole, I try to push the boundaries and challenge the received wisdom and inherent prejudices of readers. And I try not to be smug and sneery. Rant over!