The necessity of satire

By George Osborn on October 16th, 2012

In case you’ve somehow been missing one of the television events of this year, The Thick of It has returned to our screens in a glorious explosion of expletives, shaky camera angles and bulging eyes. Taking on the petty infighting of coalition government and the dead-endedness of opposition, it has taken a good old satirical swipe at the current political climate.

From arguments over funding to breakfast clubs to PFI cock ups all the way through to Leveson, Armando Iannucci’s award-winning show is apparently giving the whole political process a black eye. But while this programme seems to be engaged in the business of savage satire, to me it all feels a tad close to the establishment it mocks.

Like Yes, Minister and the more recent series of Have I Got News For You, there’s a sort of cuddly attachment to the whole political machine. The writers can hardly be faulted for having fans in high(ish) places, but when cross-party committees are advocating against the employment of Thick of It-style SpAds, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that things are a bit too close for comfort.

After all, it’s rather a long way from the ruthless pamphleteering of the eighteenth century, isnt it? Or even that same century’s Jonathan Swift. In satire, it’s important to establish distance. The fact that Westminster really rather enjoys the experience of being mocked damages the effectiveness of the satirist’s message, which ought always to be quite serious.

One wonders what transcendent point Iannucci, who is a clever and funny man but whose writing seems to dodge brave challenges, has been trying to make with this programme.

Because satire is, at its core, an angry genre of fiction. I don’t mean the self-righteous, self-regarding or pious frothing of Left-wing cartoonists – the Guardian‘s in particular – nor the vile posturing of some poorly-educated elements on the political Right. I mean the deep and strong well of anger derived from a heart-felt sense of injustice and inhumanity.

The Thick of It is an entertaining romp. It’s guaranteed to get laughs: we’re all frustrated by the oddball, inward-looking elites in power. But the best satire, ranging from The Day Today (another Iannucci vehicle) all the way back to Swift, is rooted in cruel judgement and a desire for justice.

We lack this in public discourse today, which has been poisoned by the twin hell-gods of political correctness and ephemeral, meaningless mob fury. So if, as with so much else in life, the Establishment has drifted into irrelevance and aloofness, it falls to the people, enabled by social and internet technology, to pick up the cudgels.

It’s not like there isn’t enough to be angry about. Yet speech in public life has never been more depressingly dry. Hyper-sensationalism from the Twitter mobs has dulled us to the virtues of genuine ferocity, while the carefully guarded language of politics ensures that while much ink is spilled, nothing is ever really said. Dissuasion from dissent and the hegemony of the Left-liberal consensus risks muzzling our brightest and most glittering voices.

It gets worse, of course, when you consider how these changing fashions encourage retrospective censorship.

This can be clearly seen in the BBC’s treatment of Monkey Dust. A flagship BBC 3 production, its writers shocked that execrable channel with a show of savage satirical intensity. From the Paedofinder General, leading literal witch-hunts against supposed “kiddy fiddlers”, to the reality television star made made famous from her daughter’s disappearance, it regularly left the viewer in fits of discomfort as much as laughter.

But despite producing three series of stinging satire, the programme has been practically excised from the BBC’s back catalogue. Only Series 1 is available on DVD, while Series 2 and 3 are available in piecemeal form on iTunes. It seems that a programme willing to satirise the rehabilitation of deranged mass murderers and suicide bombers before then taking on the politics of Tony Blair was too much for the BBC.

It is a disgrace, and a good starting point for a campaign to bring real satire back to our screens and into our hands. Absent the likelihood of that, it seems to me that the new generations of internet-first publications is best placed to issue stiff societal satire that targets genuine problems not solely defined by political posturing.

As a litmus test of the limits of free speech, satire is unrivalled. Only when we enjoy its untrammelled fruits can we truly say we are free – and have any hope of honest discussion. Through humour, and the coming together of humanity in the shared experience of schadenfreude or an awkward laugh, come the great revelations without which we cannot improve our lot.