7 30 Report Shirt Front Satire Essay

Volume 18 Numbers 2, 3, & 4, 2008

Naming and Shaming: News Satire and Symbolic Power

Graham Meikle
University of Stirling, UK

Abstract: This essay argues two key points about the importance of media satirists. First, satirists draw attention to the workings of media power — in particular, they open up an analysis of media in terms of symbolic power. Second, satire matters to media scholars because there are clear parallels between satire on the one hand and academic media criticism on the other, and a consideration of these parallels can help set each in a fresh context. The essay first defines symbolic power, before identifying the key actors and groups who are able to exercise it in relation to news and current affairs. It then argues that satirists occupy a crucial position in relation to the news, able to simultaneously critique symbolic power while exercising it themselves. For this reason, because it operates in and simultaneously exposes a particular fault-line in the operations of symbolic power, media satire should be taken more seriously by media scholars, not least because of the parallels between the underlying objectives of both satirists and communications academics. Both satirists and analysts seek to call attention to perceived failings, to call the powerful to account, and both could benefit from serious engagement with each other's work.

On 26 July 2001, UK national broadcaster Channel 4 transmitted a programme which was to generate the largest number of complaints of any British TV show up to that date. The programme proved so provocative that the network had to set up a dedicated phone line to handle complaints about it. The UK press were quick to join in: ‘Unspeakably Sick’, said middle-market national newspaper the Daily Mail, the ‘sickest TV programme ever shown’. The show, it said, would not have been broadcast ‘in a civilised society’. The Mail went on to suggest that the show’s creators could be prosecuted for ‘the ancient crime of outraging public decency’; the paper noted that this offence carried a potential life sentence, although it conceded — perhaps with a certain reluctance — that this would be unlikely in the case of a network TV show (Daily Mail, 30 July 2001, pp. 4-5). What show was this? A one-off specia l of Chris Morris’s satirical current affairs series Brass Eye.

Brass Eye was a corrosive, surrealist satire of the conventions of TV news and current affairs. The original 1997 series ran to six half-hour episodes, and was revived for a single special in 2001. Each episode of Brass Eye presented a fictitious news magazine programme exploring a single loose theme — crime, sex, drugs, science, animals and ‘decline’. Chris Morris was the lead writer and lead performer in each episode, playing the studio anchor as well as a range of journalist characters and performing a number of parodies of contemporary music acts. The show combined absurdist language with a deadly accurate grasp of the clichés that characterise network current affairs — new drugs, new threats, and new kinds of crime were breathlessly announced (such as ‘bursting shops’, in which gangs of kids fill shops with rice and then add water). Each episode also secured the unwitting participation of various broadcasters and med ia personalities, who were persuaded to lend their support to bizarre causes. The 2001 Brass Eye special that so exercised the Daily Mail explored media exploitations of public anxiety over paedophilia, a topic that was much in the UK news at the time.

In this essay I want to take the work of Chris Morris as an example to argue two key points about why media satirists matter. First, satirists draw attention to the workings of media power — in particular, they open up an analysis of media in terms of symbolic power (Bourdieu 1991; Thompson 1995; Couldry 2003). Second, satire matters to media scholars because there are clear parallels between satire on the one hand and academic media criticism on the other, and a consideration of these parallels can help set each in a fresh context. The essay first defines symbolic power, before identifying the key actors and groups who are able to exercise it in relation to news and current affairs. It then argues that satirists occupy a crucial position in relation to the news, able to simultaneously critique symbolic power while exercising it themselves. The paper then argues that satire is of particular signifi cance to media scholars, before finally offering the work of Chris Morris as one detailed example to set the above in a fuller perspective.

Symbolic Power

The business of news and current affairs is that of defining reality. In his landmark collection Communication as Culture, James Carey argued that reality is ‘a scarce resource’ (1989: 87). The production of news is also the carving up and exploitation of that scarce resource. In this, the ability to define reality is, as Carey puts it, a ‘fundamental form of power’ (p. 87). Specifically, this paper sees news as central to what John Thompson calls ‘symbolic power’, a concept he develops from the work of Pierre Bourdieu (especially Bourdieu 1991). Thompson distinguishes symbolic power from other dimensions of power — the coercive power of the military or the law, the political power of governments, and the economic power of corporations. Coercive power works through the use or threat of force; political power through the coordination and regulation of individu als and groups; economic power through productive activity, the creation or transformation of raw material, services and goods, and financial capital (1995: 12-18). In contrast to these, symbolic power grows out of ‘the activity of producing, transmitting and receiving meaningful symbolic forms’ (Thompson 1995: 16). Symbolic power is the ability 'to intervene in the course of events, to influence the actions of others and indeed to create events, by means of the production and transmission of symbolic forms’ (1995: 17).

Such symbolic forms would include information and entertainment, stories and songs, ideas and images. Institutions such as the media, universities, schools, government and religious organizations are all in the symbolic power business — such institutions are, as John Hartley puts it, 'sites of knowledge-production and meaning-exchange' (1999: 6). The news media are central players in this. Their work is the exercise of symbolic power — the creation and distribution of symbolic content; the exchange of shaped information; the expression of cultural skills and values. Symbolic power, as Bourdieu put it in defining the concept that Thompson develops, is the power of 'making people see and believe' (1991: 170). It is the power to name, to define, to endorse, to persuade. The news media are among the most important of those institutions that exercise such symbolic power. News matters.

Symbolic power is not separate from other forms of power, but bound up with them — political power generates resources of symbolic power; economic power can be expressed as symbolic power; coercive power can be demonstrated through the exercise of symbolic power. Not everyone is able to exercise this power in the same kinds of way or with the same kinds of success. Certain types of institution, and certain individuals, have greater resources than others — schools and universities; churches, temples and mosques; and media organizations. These are the main centres of symbolic power — and each, as Hartley argues (1998; 1999), is built around teaching,  a positive activity.

But all kinds of teaching are messy — and the difference between what gets taught and what gets learned can be a big one. The exercise of symbolic power is not a simple, one-way transaction — like all forms of power, it’s expressed within relationships, and so is not entirely predictable; it is, as Foucault has it, ‘exercised from innumerable points, in the interplay of nonegalitarian and mobile relations’ (1978: 94). Audiences can respond in many ways. Communication of this sort is a dynamic process — even, in some accounts, a chaotic one (McNair 2006). Rupert Murdoch may have far greater resources of symbolic power than most people, but the news itself is a volatile process. We live in an increasingly global, digital, always-on media environment, in which the live broadcast of an event can change the outcome of that event (Friedland 1992; Wark 1994). We live in a mediascape where the people we somehow persist in calling audiences can now collaborate and intervene in the news agenda in new ways — ask former CBS anchor Dan Rather, who retired early with his credibility badly damaged, after bloggers mobilized to debunk a CBS story about George W. Bush’s service record (Allan 2006: 94-8).

Symbolic Power and News

If news is an arena and a vehicle for the exercise of symbolic power, who gets to exercise this power? I have argued elsewhere (Meikle 2008a) that we can identify four kinds of group or individual who do this in various unequal ways: media organizations and their owners, journalists, high-status sources and audiences. In this essay, I want to address a fifth type of actor that was outside the scope of that initial analysis, but nonetheless important: media satirists; first, however, I will briefly expand on the initial four-part analysis.

The first key type of actors who exercise symbolic power in relation to news and current affairs are media organizations and their owners. A basic truth of the news is that it is overwhelmingly produced and marketed by large media organizations. These organizations have symbolic power resources that are far greater and more concentrated than those of the other actors in the news processes. Indeed, their symbolic power is so great, their capacity to define reality so extensive, that we may take it for granted and not notice it (Bourdieu 1991; Couldry 2003) — which in turn increases their symbolic power still further. Many of the most central and long-standing concepts in the study of news (inter alia gatekeeping, framing, news values, or political economy critique of concentrated ownership) are given impetus by media organizations' capacity to define reality by defining what counts as news.

Second, journalists, who are licensed by news organizations to exercise symbolic power and who draw their authority from those organizations. Journalists are licensed agents of symbolic power. Their social and cultural roles are underwritten by their claim to Fourth Estate status. This concept legitimises the use of symbolic power by media organizations — it claims a central role for the media within a democratic political system. It operates in a fault-line between the news media as participants in democracy and as commercial enterprises.

Third, those sources of information who have the capacity to influence and direct the news by providing (or withholding) high-status information — politicians and their staffers are central sources, although they do not only exercise symbolic power but are also vulnerable to its use by others (through scandal, leak, gaffe and smear, for example); other people with official status of some kind can also exploit their positions as sources of news. Symbolic power is highly concentrated in media organizations, but it is not restricted to them. Political power also generates symbolic power resources. A Prime Minister or a President can set the day's news agenda just by getting out of bed. And those with lesser concentrations of political power can also find a formidable capacity to affect the news, in particular those with some kind of claim to 'official' status.

And fourth, audiences — readers, viewers and users of news, whose interpretations, responses to (or outright rejections of) the news are a fundamental daily dimension of symbolic power. Audiences are central to the symbolic power relations that we call news. They make meanings as well as take them, and, more and more, they make their own media too. But their symbolic power resources are not equal to those of media organizations or, in many instances, powerful sources. To understand news, we have to see the role of audiences as dynamic and active, yet operating within constraints imposed by other actors in the processes of news.

How does satire fit into this framework? Like journalists, satirists are licenced agents of symbolic power, but they work to undermine it. For example, high-profile US media satirists such as Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert are able to exercise symbolic power (as leading TV personalities, best-selling authors and so on) while simultaneously drawing critical attention to the ways in which it is exercised by others. Younger audiences, in particular, actually engage with satire, in ways that they do not necessarily engage with the news. Back in the 1980s leading scholars could write that news was ‘high-status’ (Fiske 1987: 281) and that it enjoyed ‘a privileged and prestigious position in our culture’s hierarchy of values’ (Hartley 1982: 5). But in the early twenty-first century, as Graeme Turner suggests, the very idea of news ‘looks increasingly old-fashioned’ (2005: 13 ). Newspapers, for example, struggle to appeal to teenagers and university students. In 2004 the Washington Post held focus groups to find out why they were having so much trouble attracting younger readers — those surveyed said that they did not like the thought of piles of old newspapers cluttering up the house, and that they would not be interested in a subscription to the paper even if it were free (Wired News, 24 November 2004). The New York Times reported similar findings, with one 22-year-old complaining that newspapers ‘are so clunky and big’ (22 January 2006, p.1). One 2006 survey found that 27% of Americans under the age of 30 had got no news at all from TV, radio, newspapers or the Net on the day before being interviewed (Pew Research Center for the People & the Press 2006: 9).

It is in this context that the 2007 Pew Report on public knowledge of news and current affairs found that those who were best-informed were most likely to be regular viewers of satire programmes The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Media satire is now more central to the information diet of some audience members than the media it sets out to criticize. One could go further, as Paul Lewis (2006) does in Cracking Up, and argue that satire and humour have become central to contemporary political discourse, at least in the US, which is the site of his study. However, the following section makes a more modest claim, for the importance of satire to academic scholars of the media.

Satire and the Study of Media

‘This is the CBS evening news, with Dan Rather reporting from CBS news headquarters in New York. Good evening. Danger. War. Killer. Fraud. CIA. Mayhem. Crisis. Horrible. Inflation. Military threat. Flaming debris. Fatal heart attack. Stress injuries. Prison disaster. Economic collapse. Dangerous radiation. A tide of violence and human misery. A liar and an unremorseful killer. Communist international smuggling pipeline. Starving victims — and how they died.’

This is the introduction to the recording ‘Rocked by Rape’ by the Evolution Control Committee <http://evolution-control.com>. Over a backing sampled from AC/DC, recorded snatches of Dan Rather’s voice are assembled in a painstaking collage, becoming more bizarre and surreal as the track progresses. The track taps into a number of traditions. It is similar, for instance, to novelist William Burroughs’s use of the ‘cut-up’ technique of splicing texts together — as Burroughs explained this, ‘Cut-ups establish new connections between images, and one’s range of vision consequently expands’ (1982: 264). It connects to the Situationist method of détournement, of taking familiar signs and turning them into question marks (Debord & Wolman 1981). It is also a good example of cut-and-paste culture, in t he tradition of musical mash-ups drawing upon news broadcasts — Steinski & Mass Media’s ‘The Motorcade Sped On’ from 1986, for instance, or the 2005 WaxAudio cut-up of George W. Bush ‘performing’ John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’. More and more, creativity is a matter of such remixing, reworking, restating, recombining (Florida 2002; Manovich 2006). As Paul Miller (aka DJ Spooky) puts it, the remix aesthetic offers 'play and irreverence toward the found objects that we use as consumers and a sense that something new was right in front of our oh-so-jaded eyes' (2004: 45). More and more non-professionals find remixes a way to exercise their own symbolic power resources — scores of amateur political mash-ups are posted on video-sharing website YouTube — George Bush singing U2's 'Sunday Bloody Sunday'. Bush and Tony Blair duetting on Diana Ro ss and Lionel Richie's 'Endless Love', or Electric Six's 'Gay Bar'. The common point in all these approaches — cut-up, détournement, remix — is to reveal relationships which otherwise go unacknowledged, to draw attention to things which are otherwise taken for granted (Meikle 2008b).

This impulse is at the heart of much satire. It is also, in different ways, at the heart of much media scholarship and analysis. Satire and Media Studies are, of course, not the same thing. Satire is art on the attack. It aims to ridicule and provoke — to ‘cure the vices of mankind’ as Jonathan Swift put it. Media Studies aims to analyse, describe and explain, although much work in the field does have a normative intent or polemical edge as well. There are further differences — satire usually (if not always) aims to make the audience laugh, whereas, like any other academic discipline, Media Studies could probably use a few more laughs.

But satire and Media Studies have some important connections:

  • both ask questions about power and influence
  • both make judgments about social, cultural and political standards and failings
  • both are forms of cultural criticism.

Literary scholars Connery and Combe point to ‘the potential for satire as a site of resistance to cultural and political hegemony’ (1995: 11). For good or ill, much Media Studies shares this orientation (and resistance is a very familiar trope in much work analysing popular culture, including the news). Moreover, and perhaps most importantly for the purposes of this essay, both satire and Media Studies draw attention to things which often go unnoticed, or rather, both draw attention to things which are often taken for granted, which are second nature (Wark 1997). As Lawrence Lessig suggests: ‘A time is marked not so much by ideas that are argued about as by ideas that are taken for granted’ (2001: 5). Or as John Fiske (1990: xiv) once wrote, ‘Communication is too often taken for granted when it should be taken to pieces.’ A common thread to much media scholarship is one of taking a closer look at things we do not normally think twice about, about questioning what is second nature to us — about taking apart the taken for granted. Both satire and Media Studies try to reveal the uses of symbolic power.

Satire shows how discussion of politics and political issues is not just confined to the marked realm of news and current affairs (Street 2001: 68). And satires of news and current affairs show how media analysis and criticism is not confined to university communication departments. ‘The media is full of send-ups of the media’ as Catherine Lumby points out (1999: 7). For Lumby, moreover, the critical and popular acclaim given to such satires ‘illustrates the way audiences have become increasingly media-literate’.

There are many notable and important examples of literary satires attacking journalists, most famously perhaps the clueless correspondents of Evelyn Waugh’s 1938 novel Scoop, described by Christopher Hitchens as ‘the mirror of satire held up to catch the Caliban of the press corps’ (2000: xiii). More contemporary examples might include the careerist tabloid hacks of Martin Amis’s Yellow Dog (2003) or Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), or the tabloid sub-editor who speaks in Carol Ann Duffy’s poem ‘Poet For Our Times’, and dreams ‘that kids will know my headlines off by heart […] The poems of the decade […] The instant tits and bottom line of art’ (1993: 229). There is also a substantial body of cinema which offers critical perspectives on the press, from Hawks’s His Girl Friday (1940) and Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) on. Other news satire is mainly about the content of the news — particularly the politicians and celebrities who populate it, and deflating their pretensions or achievements. Then there is satire which is concerned with the form of news, which highlight the messages and the shaping of the news itself, which call attention to the ways in which particular stories are represented, and in so doing point out what we usually take for granted.

Such critiques can be especially revealing when satirical projects leak into the mainstream news. In March 2004, for example, MSNBC TV reported that 58% of all physical exercise done in the US took place within television infomercials advertising exercise equipment (Wired News, 14 April 2004). The reporter did not identify the source of this striking statistic — as it turned out, that source was The Onion, a satirical newspaper from Wisconsin, which took off on a global level with the launch of its website in 1996 <http://www.theonion.com>. The Onion’s poker-faced style, and the fact that after being passed around by email the original source often becomes obscured, means that it is only too easy to take some of its headlines and stories at face value.

The Onion ’s targets range from corporations (‘Philip Morris Lawyers Deny Cigarettes Are Cylindrical’) to the entertainment media (‘”Must-See TV” Now Enforced By Law’). But the most consistent target is the representational style of the news media itself, particularly the Associated Press style which it parodies so acutely, from its distinctive syntax (‘New President Feels Nation’s Pain, Breasts’) to its endless metaphors of conflict and contest (‘Drugs Win Drug War’).

MSNBC is not the only news outlet to be taken in by the satirical publication’s pitch-perfect mastery of Associated Press style. The Beijing Evening News was also caught out by an Onion story about how members of the US Congress were threatening to relocate from Washington DC as a bargaining chip in their demand for a new Capitol building with a retractable sun roof — and the Beijing paper initially refused to believe their story was wrong (Wired News, 14 April 2004). Some might blame such errors on the Internet. The established media still complain that online information cannot be trusted — as opposed to, say, MSNBC TV or the Beijing Evening News. But a more useful reading might be to suggest that the real issues of online credibility should remind us all to be active, questioning readers and audiences of older media forms too. The next section seeks to illustrate this by examining the work of UK media satirist Chris Morris.

Naming and Shaming

The work of Chris Morris remains some of the most insightful — and vicious — commentary on news formulas and current affairs ever produced. Morris has created work across a broad spectrum of media. He has worked in print, producing a controversial series of op-ed columns for The Observer under the pseudonym Richard Geefe in 1999, in which the columnist announced he planned to commit suicide later that year, and recorded his preparations and growing celebrity status week by week; in March 2002, Morris also co-produced a supplement on the September 11, 2001, attacks for the same paper, probing some of the more extreme media responses to terrorism with his usual surreal edge (‘man arrested with network of caves in shoe’). He has worked in radio, with the satirical news series On The Hour (1991-2) and the surrealist montage broadcasts of Blue Jam (1997-9). And he has distributed important work online, including the ‘Bush whacked’ videos which remixed footage of George W. Bush’s 2003 State of the Union speech to present the President announcing to Congress that ‘Every year, by law and by custom, we meet here to threaten the world’ (Meikle 2008b). However, it is in his television work that Morris has made the greatest impact.

Morris unpacked the exercise of symbolic power in his 1994 BBC series The Day Today and in his 1997 series Brass Eye. Both series employed hyperbole to draw the viewer’s attention to the conventions of TV news and current affairs. Among these we could point to Morris’s central character as eponymous anchor, exhibiting a spectacular degree of aggression and contempt for the other figures in the show and for the viewing audience. On one occasion in Brass Eye, the anchor says to the viewer: ‘You haven’t got a clue, have you? But you will do, if you watch for 30 minutes.’ On another, he leads into an ad break with the line: Find out exactly what to think — next.’ UK current affairs has a particular tradition of aggressive celebrity anchor figures, from Robin Day (who once provoked then-Defence Secretary John Nott to storm out of the studio by addressing him as a ‘here today, gone tomorrow politi cian’) to John Humphrys, whose daily interviews with senior figures on BBC Radio 4 can resemble extraordinary rendition. Morris’s hyperbolic performance here owes much to the vocal delivery of the BBC’s Michael Buerk and the overall persona of BBC late-night news anchor Jeremy Paxman. Paxman’s approach is encapsulated in a famous interview with Conservative MP Michael Howard, in which Paxman repeated the same yes-or-no question more than a dozen times without ever getting anything resembling a yes-or-no answer — watch the encounter and count for yourself at <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/newsnight>.

A further focus is on the use in TV news of graphics and imagery. Television is of course a medium that depends on visual images — without them, a story cannot work on screen. This can often lead to some very banal and literal-minded juxtapositions of news script and available visuals. Morris draws attention to this repeatedly. In one brilliant sequence from episode two of The Day Today, an account of a fictional politician’s resignation is accompanied by a very rapid montage of literal-minded images — so, for example, the italicized words in the phrase ‘he hopes to spend more time cultivating his hobbies’ are illustrated by shots of Bob Hope, a cash register, Sir Thomas More, a wristwatch, and a tractor. Both The Day Today and Brass Eye featured sophisticated graphics, made by the same company that produced ITN news’s visual effects — one particularly impressi ve graph shows that ‘crimes we know nothing about are also increasing’. This pointed to how, in the digital era, TV news has a new kind of relationship to visual images, using them as raw material to be re-worked in effects and sequences of graphic flair (Ellis 2000). Crisell captures the tone of the videographics now central to TV news: 'Moving diagrams and distinctive script may appear on the screen: the colour tones of the images may be altered and the images themselves twisted, stretched, rotated, shattered and peeled away like the pages of a book' (2006: 57). Both Ellis and Crisell suggest that such graphics — however busy they may look — are used to impose a sense of visual order on the otherwise chaotic range of images which TV news is now prepared to use (including images shot by mobile phone, for example). But there is a tension here that Bolter and Grusin (1999) argue is characteristic of digital media. On the one hand, new media are used to increase the sense of immediacy, the sense that we are actually there and witnessing an event in real time (as in the use of camera-phone video on TV) On the other hand, though, the look of the state-of-the-art TV news screen is flashy and cluttered, constantly drawing attention to itself (the logos, the clocks, the tickers, the windows, the invitations to push the red button), and this only reinforces the fact that we are not actually there.

A third area of the news that is satirised in Morris’s TV work is the use of high-status sources. The news needs to draw on the statements of individuals and organizations who have a certain kind of legitimacy, a certain kind of credibility, a certain kind of official status. News, as three leading scholars put it, is ‘a representation of authority. In the contemporary knowledge society news represents who are the authorized knowers and what are their authoritative versions of reality’ (Ericson, Baranek & Chan 1989: 3, original emphasis). This, it has been argued, leaves the news vulnerable to an establishment bias, to manipulation and distortion, and to simple inaccuracy. As Edward Herman observes: ‘If a highly placed person makes some statement, this is newsworthy in itself. The more authoritative and credible the source, the easier it is to accept statements without checking’ (Herman 1995: 81). Brass Eye drew special attention to the use of ‘authoritative’ sources through its duping of broadcasters, politicians and celebrities. Dozens of household names appeared on camera, reading unbelievable and surreal autocue scripts in the service of what they believed were real public awareness campaigns (some, clearly, would have read anything at all for any purpose). One Conservative MP, David Amess, was persuaded to ask a question in Parliament about the problem of ‘cake’, which Morris had told him was ‘a made-up drug’. He appeared to believe this meant ‘designer drug’ — but it meant made-up. In another example, a radio DJ was made to explain how paedophiles had more genetic material in common with crabs than with other human beings, advising: ‘that is scientific fact — there’s no real evidence for it, but it is scientific fact’. And in a third, a sports broadcaster read a s cript explaining how paedophiles would physically attack photographs of landscapes if children could be discerned anywhere in the image.

What was the context for Morris’s 2001 programme about paedophilia? The UK media were embroiled in a full-scale moral panic about child-sex offences at this time. A moral panic is a media event about negotiating the boundaries of culture and social behaviour (Cohen 2002; Critcher 2003, 2006; Goode & Ben-Yehuda 1994). The key thing to a moral panic is that it presents 'us' as being under some kind of threat from 'them'. But who 'they' are tends to be different each time — and who 'we' are can be problematic as well. Moral panics are an expression, in the media, of cultural negotiation. Culture is not something static or fixed, but rather something that is constantly being worked out — moral panics are moments or events when this process bubbles up to the surface of the media. A moral panic is, then, a struggle over and through symbolic power — it is a n event which works around defining a particular aspect of reality, around fixing and framing a certain view of a certain cultural boundary.

In 2000, the best-selling UK Sunday paper, the Murdoch News of the World, had begun a campaign of printing the names and photos of convicted sex offenders. On 23 July 2000, the paper led with the front-page headline ‘Named Shamed’. Inside on page three were 49 passport-sized photos of convicted sex offenders. The facing page (‘what to do if there’s a pervert on your doorstep’) listed the names, ages and towns of dozens of further offenders, and promised more online (‘our website maps beasts’). Such coverage was guaranteed to inflame tempers and, despite the editorial cautioning against vigilantism (‘that would be counter-productive’, p. 6), there were indeed outbreaks of mob violence against suspected paedophiles, including nights of rioting and a surreal incident in which a paediatrician was driven from her home by a gang of vigilantes with very real spelling problems (Times, 30 August 2000, p. 4).

In response to this climate, the Brass Eye episode was framed as a live crisis special, with parents urged to herd their kids into major stadiums around the country, where they’d be fitted with ‘anti-paedophile canisters’. The programme featured CCTV footage of a paedophile who had ‘disguised himself as a school’, and reported that over 80% of people have sex with children ‘if you define a child as anyone under thirty’. A range of British celebrities and public figures were exposed as prepared to lend their vocal support to causes that they clearly didn’t understand: ‘I’m talking nonce sense’ said singer Phil Collins, pointing at the latter two words on a t-shirt with which the programme’s makers had supplied him, while one Labour MP was persuaded to announce that child sex offenders were ‘using an area of the Internet the size of Ireland’.

The programme was not laughing at paedophilia, but was rather satirizing the representation of this issue in news and current affairs, in particular identifying a blurred line between reporting and prurience — a point that the Daily Mail was to prove neatly in its subsequent attack on Brass Eye. In the same issue as the ‘Unspeakably Sick’ piece (in fact, on the preceding page, which was — appropriately enough — page three) the Mail printed a voyeuristic paparazzi photo of the then-eleven and thirteen-year-old princesses Eugenie and Beatrice wearing bikinis. Brass Eye set out to satirize one moral panic and in turn became the subject of a new one.


Media satire of the standard practiced by Chris Morris is an area of fundamental importance to media scholarship because of the ways in which it simultaneously exercises and undermines symbolic power. If the exercise of symbolic power, to return to Thompson’s definition, is to intervene in events, to influence others, and to create situations, through the creation and distribution of texts, then interventions such as Brass Eye, alongside better-known US counterparts such as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, are a powerful illustration of this. A satirist like Morris occupies a distinctive position in relation to the exercise of symbolic power, able to simultaneously deploy this power while, at the same time, trading in powerful criticisms of its exercise by others. For this reason, because it operates in and simultaneously exposes a particular fault-line in the operations of symbolic power, media satire should be taken more seriously by media s cholars, not least because of the parallels between the underlying objectives of both satirists and communications academics. Both satirists and analysts seek to call attention to perceived failings, to call the powerful to account, and both could benefit from serious engagement with each other’s work.


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Drysdale, a presenter on ABC's consumer affairs comedy show The Checkout, has begun a two-month stint with the program and 7.30 said it would be "delighted to have her back" afterwards.

On Tuesday, she set the stage for the confrontation that never was: "Our very own cyclist taking on a bear-riding, sports-fishing, gun-toting, judo-wrestling, tiger-slaying, dolphin-wrangling former KGB spy."

Footage from APEC of Mr Abbott wandering awkwardly around Mr Putin was described in a sports commentary voice.

Comments by US President Barack Obama about military efforts in Iraq were applied to the upcoming Abbott-Putin bout.

"We can provide close air support, we can provide logistics and intelligence, but ultimately, they're the ones who are going to have to fight," Mr Obama said.

On social media, the comedy was described as unfunny, out of place on 7.30 and even disrespectful to the memory of MH17 victims.

But others praised the whimsical take, which featured before a breaking news announcement on the topic from Sales.

An ABC spokesperson would not comment on the segment's reception but said the show had a long tradition of satire from the likes of John Clarke and Bryan Dawe.

"That element has been absent from the program for the past two years, since the Clarke and Dawe segment was moved out of 7.30," the spokesperson said.

"We have been exploring new ways of including satire in the program."

The parody segment comes amid speculation about the future direction of ABC news programming in the face of deep budget cuts.


The ABC and SBS are reportedly braced for cuts between $200 - $300 million over five years.

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