In a world of fake news, what happens to satire?

Satire used to be fake news pretending to be real. But now real news fights to show it's not fake. And satire is twisting in the punchline. We're trying desperately to keep up

In just one week, the White House accused a CNN reporter of karate-chopping an aide’s arm as she tried to take a mic from him, then faced allegations of doctoring the video of the incident to make it seem worse, to which the president responded by calling these accusations “dishonest reporting”. Days later Trump cancelled his attendance at a memorial outside Paris for US and French soldiers killed during WW1 because it was raining. 

Within two days he was tweeting about Parisians speaking German had it all gone wrong in WW2, and the trouble with French wine. This is the President, not Jerry Sadowitz.

The absurd is the new normal. Brexit’s uncharted path means ever-wilder claims continue to gain a foothold.

The surprising thing about all of this is that, two years since Trump’s election, it’s no longer surprising. The absurd is the new normal. Brexit’s uncharted path means ever-wilder claims continue to gain a foothold. Within the Brexit domain, a challenge to the dominant belief is met with cries of ‘Project Fear’. When the news is more ridiculous than the anything Private Eye can conceive for a front page we are in the Beyond-Satire Age. Secretaries of State who do the satirists’ jobs for them, lampooning themselves with their casual displays of jaw-dropping ignorance must be stripping all the joy from the job, surely?

On the other hand, only satire can cut through the lies to get to the nub of the truth. Satire is the real fake news, using exaggeration and hyperbole to get to a truth that the real news cannot. In an age of fakery, the hyper-bogus can become inverted as truth. Still with us?

British satire can be traced back to the late 1700s with names like James Gillray and George Cruikshank cocking a snook at those in power, a ribald tradition offering a straight line through Punch, Private EyeYes, Minister, Have I Got News For You, The Day Today and The Thick Of It. The media turnover back then was relatively slow and satire could take its time, adjusting its crosshairs before pulling the trigger.

The news cycle now moves at lighting speed and satire has been forced to match its pace. The message is the same but the medium has to be different.

NewsBiscuit, launched in 2006, was arguably the first satirical website in the UK that aped the tropes of real news. John O’Farrell had worked on Spitting Image and HIGNFY but a conversation with Alan Rusbridger, then editor of The Guardian, about the woeful sales projections for print media triggered him to set up a site as a creative sandbox for comedy writers. “I thought that maybe the internet offered a way to get stuff seen by a wider audience and to help writers to hone their comedy writing style,” he says.

Satire feels accelerated today because the old comedy equation (tragedy + time) is harder to stand up in a world of social media and smartphones. Time is often the enemy of satire; if you don’t make the joke immediately, someone else will. As the Irish border discovered when it realised it needed its own Twitter account to keep up with the latest absurdities.

Of this satire lag, Richard Smith, founder managing editor of NewsThump, says: “Ten years ago, something would happen in the news and we would spend a few hours going through it, knock around a few ideas and maybe publish something on the website. Now if something happens and someone thinks of a good joke, it is a race to get it online.”

DID YOU KNOW…

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However, Tim Telling, editor of The Daily Mash, suggests the only way to deal with this satirical sprint is to opt out entirely. “Personally I always think it is worth hanging on for something more distinctive – ideally aspiring to think of something that your audience couldn’t think of.”

As the media breaks into partisan sub-sets, as social media algorithms entomb us in echo chambers and where the match-to-petrol deflection of “fake news” is designed to end any claims of objective reporting, the most counterfeit forms of news can actually lead us – through lampoonery and hyperbole – to a deeper truth.

“Because we are not tethered by checks and balances, we can just go for the jugular in a way that conventional news can’t,” says Telling.

A mysterious figure known only as Aur Esenbel is behind The Daily Squib and talks about the digital update currently happening to the two ancient schools of satire.

“The tone is Juvenalian satire, that is to say, it is harder hitting than the jolly harmless Horatian kind, which is prevalent in so many other sites,” they say of where The Daily Squib fits into the landscape. “Juvenalian satire does not necessarily have to be ‘funny’. This can be disconcerting to some, but this type of bitter, irreverence and ‘fuck you’ attitude is the root of all real satire, where the bone saws come out to extract the ultimate truth.”

Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal in 1729 (where he argued that the Irish famine would be averted if the starving Irish simply sold their children) is arguably the peak of Juvenalian satire, but its coruscating tone can still be found today in Waterford Whispers News’ numerous pieces on the Magdalene Laundries scandal – a series of anguished howls that eschewed punchlines to expose the systemic abuses and coverups there.

Most satirical sites, however, shy away from such a brutal tone.

“There are many stories that begin like that [a roar of fury] but it won’t go on the site unless there is a joke at the heart of it,” says Smith. “If you could reveal something like a hidden absurdity in the position of someone that has angered you, it is really powerful. If you just call them an idiot, it doesn’t really work so well.”

Sometimes, however, no matter how well intentioned the story, it can still fall flat or be upsettingly misinterpreted. Smith says one of the few times NewsThump had to pull a piece was in the aftermath of the bombing at Ariana Grande’s concert in Manchester in May last year.

“We looked at it and there was obviously nothing humorous about it – so we tried to create something that was more defiant in tone,” he says. “The headline went along the lines of, ‘“It’ll take more than that to stop us going out and enjoying ourselves,” say Mancunians.’ People said it was really bad taste and we shouldn’t be making jokes about it. We said it wasn’t a joke and it was more a piece of defiance. Within a couple of hours we had taken it down and put an apology on the site. I still think the angle was legitimate. It was purely a piece that was grounded in defiance. But people really, really didn’t like it.”

As websites and social media have positioned themselves as the rapid response units of satire today, what does that mean for satirical writers on TV, radio and in print?

Actor and writer David Schneider has appeared in landmark satirical shows like The Day Today and The Saturday Night Armistice. That Lot, the social media agency he co-founded, now runs the social media accounts for HIGNFY (among others) and he explains how that particular show has moved to stay relevant.

“They have realised they have to be even more topical – hyper-topical, even – on social media,” he says. “You just have to try and make your jokes as good and as original as possible. You just have to be better because there is so much competition now. HIGNFY know they really have to sharpen their game.”

He adds that online publishing and editing software means that anyone can quickly do what it took banks of skilled experts days to do as little as two decades ago. “What is interesting for me is this democratisation of satire. Back then you could only do it if you had the BBC behind you. That is a big change. Today anyone can do a satirical video.”

With news itself running pell-mell, on the surface it might seem both Trump and Brexit are glittering gifts to satirists; but most satirical websites feel they have already run out of road with both.

“The golden age was 18 months ago,” says Smith. “I think we’re already past the crest of that wave and we’re already having to find new ways and new subjects to mock. We certainly see fatigue from the user base when we make jokes about those subjects.”

In a very limited news pool, Northern Ireland tends to repeat itself,

One response is to be hyper-local like The Ulster Fry, but even then there are only so many jokes to be made about the suspension of the Stormont Assembly or bonfire season.

“In a very limited news pool, Northern Ireland tends to repeat itself,” says Billy (not his real name), co-founder of The Ulster Fry, adding there are ways to give international stories a local twist. “We had Donald Trump opening a new branch of [variety retailer] B&M in the Ards Shopping Centre and it was the best ever branch of B&M. Even when Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt were getting divorced, they were fighting over a caravan in Portrush.”

An existential conundrum for everyone here is that if satire is merely the ultimate echo chamber, it can never change opinions, merely reinforce them.

“Can it change hearts and minds?” asks Smith of what his and other sites do. “I would love to think so. Yes, we exaggerate things and, yes, we blow things out of proportion, but fundamentally there should always be an element of truth in there. If that element of truth can resonate with people and at least have them be better informed – then that is a good start in changing hearts and minds.”

Esenbel, however, feels that “when all bets are off”, precise satire can really come into its own. “Satire weeds out the hypocrisy, the social deviance, the injustice, the inherent vices of any given target,” they say.

Not everyone, however, is convinced.

“I used to think that satire was this really important political tool and I have now come to the opposite conclusion,” proposes O’Farrell. “It doesn’t work. I think it potentially makes things worse and assists the establishment rather than undermines it. People get angry about something and then they make a joke of something and that anger is processed into a euphoric sense of superior mockery – so then it is dealt with and you move on. Worse still, you get people like Boris Johnson and Christine Hamilton made into human beings or great comedy casting choices of news programmes and then people vote for them to be made mayor of London because they seemed like a good laugh!”

He glumly concludes, “Maybe satire was a step on the way to fake news. This week you can say something as an outrageous joke and then the next week it becomes true!”

Peter Fellows, a writer on Veep and The Death Of Stalin, wonders if satire is suffering from a double case of being “too soon” to make jokes about the dominant events of the day sitting alongside targets who appear impervious to satirical broadsides.

“It is a bad time for satire,” he proposes. “You can’t really satirise Donald Trump because he has already beaten you to it. I think it will be easier to satirise what is happening now in 20 years than it would be to do it today. I don’t think making a gag about Donald Trump will ever make a difference. The way to stop someone like that is to ignore them. If everyone who follows him on Twitter just blocked him, that would say something to him.”

Yet at its very best – and perhaps outside of the anomalous gravitational pull of Trumpian politics –  satire can still work like sunlight on the vampires of government, religion and big business. It might be the fakest of news but it still retains the power to tell the harshest of truths.