With parliament set to relax rules on the use of parliamentary footage for satire and ridicule, an opportunity presents itself that we can’t afford to miss.
Let’s use this opportunity to kick start political satire on Australian TV.
Let’s be clear, this is not the same thing as not taking political news seriously or pouring scorn on politicians, which I believe we’ve pretty much got covered. Good political satire delivers serious analysis in a way that is accessible to a large audience, and unlike traditional media coverage of politics, this audience gets bigger when satire gets better. Before you write me off for suggesting that there is no merit in high-quality political news, allow me to illustrate the alienating powers of undiluted political coverage:
ABC’s 7.30 for example is objectively better and more interesting as political news than the commercial ‘news’ broadcasts it competes with. Media Watch keeps more journalists accountable than the federal agency set up for that purpose. Four Corners regularly breaks stories that have a lasting impact on federal politics, if not international politics (in the case of live export). All these shows are out-rated by the trash they compete with on commercial TV, because serious political news, no matter how good it is, and often because of how good it is, excludes people who aren’t already on the inside.
What I want is political analysis delivered in a manner that not only informs but argues a case with and for reason and balance. I want media that makes me laugh at the absurdity of the situation rather than making me want to hug my knees in the shower. I want some middle ground between media aimed at Southern Cross tattoo flaunting, XXXX swilling pit bull owners and the middle aged, café latte sipping inner metropolitan intelligentsia. I want coverage that takes an intelligent position, then looks at both sides of the seemingly intractable political divide and laughs, but not before illustrating how the system should and could work to serve us all better. I want my political media to be the bastard love child of Jonathan Holmes, Michelle Grattan, John Clarke and Bryan Dawe, Tim Minchin, Leigh Sales, Kerry O’Brien and Chas Licciardello.
But it’s not for me, and chances are that if that last paragraph resonated with you on a deeply felt, personal level then it’s not really for you either.
If you’re a politics nerd, you already read The Conversation, you’re probably on Crikey’s mailing list, you probably hide your love for Q&A behind a mask of haughty derision, and as much as you might enjoy it, you don’t need satire. Satire brings political content to the huge portion of the electorate that for whatever reason can’t be bothered sitting through hours of what is, if we’re honest, intensely boring programming just to get their heads around the national debate. To paraphrase 2010 New York Gubernatorial Candidate Jimmy McMillian; the price for understanding Australian politics right now is too damn high for a huge number of people.
It seems absurd that we would ever be outpaced by America in this area. We are a nation known the world over for an inability or at least reluctance to take ourselves seriously. They are a country full of people who famously can’t discern drooling sarcasm from deadpan statements of fact. How has it come to pass then that American audiences get The Colbert Report and the satirist factory that is The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on a nightly basis, and we have to make do with a couple of minutes of Clarke and Dawe each week? Is it not our national duty to defend our reputation as a state that tends to deal with its problems by laughing at them?
It’s not just quantity where the Americans have us beaten either. The Colbert Report and The Daily Show are the best at what they do. They take each issue on its merits, never spare the rod on other side of politics and somehow manage to inform huge swathes of the American population while being hilarious. They represent what satire can achieve when ballsy management, excellent writing and fearless presenters all collide in a shiny studio on a late-night timeslot.
Let’s not pretend that The Chaser coming back once every three years for an election special or Shaun Micallef valiantly fighting the good fight in a dark corner of the ABC is good enough for us. We need shows can do what Jon Stewart does; bring complex political discussion down to an accessible level without simplifying or polarizing it.
So I guess the question is, if political lampoonery is the solution to all our apathetic problems, why doesn’t it exist already?
It has before. It’s medically possible there are still people alive who remember The Gillies Report, which had a brief moment of brilliance between 1984 and 1985, winning the coveted “Best Light Entertainment Series” Logie in 1986 before being re-launched as The Gillies Republic and disappearing by the end of that year. Clarke and Dawe, Micallef’s Mad As Hell and The Chaser have all done their bit before fading into fondly recalled obscurity. There are institutional reasons why shows don’t last here. The lack of independently minded networks that are not beholden to the government of the day for funding being the main one.
The Chaser is a case study in the conflict between the Australian audiences need for this content and our media’s inability to deliver it for more than a couple of years in every decade.
This is how the story goes:
Shows like The Chaser only really exist on the ABC. This is because the ABC stands relatively alone in the media landscape, and certainly alone on free-to-air TV (excluding SBS for lack of mainstream appeal) in trying to remain impartial and look at the debate down the middle. It’s also the only network that can tends to take chances with political interesting shows that are unlikely to make huge amounts of money.
However, shows of this nature tend to be seen as a sign of the ABC’s imagined left-wing bias. It’s a problem that all satirists tend to run into regardless of the network they’re on, and Jon Stewart and Colbert certainly have over the years, but given the ABC’s government funded position it tends to be harder for it to resist this criticism than it is for The Comedy Channel, which hosts Stewart and Colbert.
Eventually, forced to diversify their subject matter and lose focus, shows like The Chaser eventually become a kind of low-budget Jackass rip-off and die a slow death at the hands of morally outraged talk-back callers.
It seems like an insurmountable problem, and it’s one that has run its course unsuccessfully enough times before for there to be little hope of triumph even if some ABC executive is brave or drunk enough to go once more unto the breach, but the ability to laugh at our problems and spread understanding though piss-taking is something that we sorely need.
So all I’m really asking for is the ABC to go up against a hostile conservative government, not to mention conservative media, find someone willing to front a show that will be a magnet for criticism who is willing to look at every issue on its merits, find a way to make us laugh, and stick at it for years until we learn to respect and appreciate that feat of journalistic and comedic flair. One of the lads from The Chaser is probably the default option but you can’t really look past Clarke and Dawe when you need someone to save a nation’s political discourse with relentless but intelligent piss taking. Help us John and Bryan, you’re our only hope.