Let’s be unfashionable. Satire gets an easy ride at the moment.
Quoting WB Yeats:
Come let us mock at the great
That had such burdens on the mind
And toiled so hard and late
To leave some monument behind,
Nor thought of the levelling wind.
Mock mockers after that
That would not lift a hand maybe
To help good, wise or great
To bar that foul storm out, for we
Traffic in mockery.
Is it about time we mocked the mockers and put them back in their cage? The trouble is, they look pretty immune. No-one out there dares challenge them. If we mock them, they mock us, and they’ve got the airtime and we haven’t.
Satire surrounds us in the media, with Have I Got News For You primetime, and seemingly endless other programmes looking for the opportunity to get a laugh out of people or events.
Much satire is simply no longer funny. Am I alone in thinking that Have I Got News For You no longer passes that test? But you can argue that satire doesn’t have to be funny, it’s enough to be ingenious or witty. Have I Got News fails again on that count.
Satire does have a key function, attacking pomposity and self-regard, bringing us all down to earth when we fly too high. But these days it’s in a world of its own, self-referential, unchallenged.
It casts its net so wide, draws in so many, and lampoons anything it can find that will get half a laugh. It’s also looking all the time for new ways of being funny, and that often means pushing the boundaries out, making satire more cruel. The old jokes seem tame.
I’ve always found the celebrity argument a pathetic one: they put themselves out there, so they are open season when it comes to criticism and mockery. Not true. If they court celebrity for its own sake, that of course is a different matter.
Any satirist has to ask themselves: are they putting more into life that they are taking out? There’s very little enlightenment out there, so is entertainment a justification? Maybe the entertainment is better than I think it is.
The likes of Jon Stewart are excused any brickbats from me. He’s someone who understands what he’s satirising. He actually has something funny and useful to say.
Going back in time we had Yes Minister. Ministers had some credibility then, so the satire hit home. They have these days very little left to them, but that doesn’t stop the mockery.
Satire also changes those it satirises. Public figures will happily, or usually unhappily, appear on Have I Got News For You. They want to be seen to be cool and funny, to be seen to be able to laugh at themselves. But this often suggests they don’t take themselves, or their colleagues, too seriously. They’re looking for a little showbiz glamour, but it’s at a high cost.
(If they’re not good at being cool and funny, then best they stay out of public life, however much they might have to offer.)
They also see, as John O’Farrell argues, that ‘power has ebbed away from Westminster, the media has grown in influence and research…The Fourth Estate has eclipsed the other three. The best satirists have realised this and look beyond personality and caricature to influence the new corridors of power.’
John O’Farrell is specifically referring to the likes of the apparatchiks who seeks to influence ministers in The Thick Of It. So it’s the process they’re lampooning, but that reflects back on the politicians, who employ or have to suffer them.
It’s also clear that not only does the media dominate but that it is invulnerable to criticism of itself, or to satire. Have you seen the Barclays brothers, Telegraph owners, satirised much recently, even though they should be, in their island redoubt, hidden away behind their delusions of Hearst-like grandeur?
If we do get politicians and policies taken seriously in this world then they have to have a hell of a lot going for them. Our first instinct is not to take them seriously, our second to doubt their motives, our third to distrust the policies themselves.
Satire and its current bedfellows, ridicule and scorn, have got above themselves. But what recourse have we?
[Ref: Mock The Weak, John O’Farrell, The London Library Magazine, Spring 2010]