Note from Wallace: The following is not my own work, but a republication of another writers’ work from The Conversation. For more details on the author, institution and Creative Commons licence, see the bottom of this article, which I have left unedited. Be aware that republications are not endorsements, but are simply drawing the reader’s attention to interesting ongoing debates.
The Daily Mail has never tried to hide its anti-immigration stance, but there can be few more egregious examples of out-and-out bigotry than Richard Littlejohn’s recent attempt at a satirical article which outlined an unconventional approach to weeding out Britain’s illegal immigrant population.
The article relates to an essay written in the Mail on Sunday by an anonymous, yet experienced asylum judge. In it, the judge makes the case that Britain’s asylum system is broken by highlighting how immigrants can “go below the radar for years”. Apparently, their cover could now be blown because evidence supplied by the sewage industry reveals that “that there are more than a million more people in London than are legally registered”.
Cue Littlejohn’s proposal of monitoring sewage waste as a way of efficiently “flushing out” illegal immigrants.
Littlejohn advocates hiring the host of You Are What You Eat, Dr Gillian McKeith, to sift through human excrement to identify the country of origin: “I’m getting korma, pomegranate, goat, chickpeas, chapati and a hint of onion dumpling. Could be Pakistani or Afghan, but definitely from the Khyber Pass.”
The farcical nature of the article is clearly an attempt at satirical writing on the part of Littlejohn – no doubt any complaints aimed towards it will be met with the defence that it’s a joke that shouldn’t be taken seriously. But the satire here falls short of the mark, not because of Littlejohn’s comedic writing skills – although that’s certainly a factor – but because conservative satire is largely incompatible with the traditional definition of the genre. That’s because satire is a discourse of challenge that attacks powerful institutions in a playful and entertaining way.
Satire is a technique that works on behalf of ordinary citizens, articulating their feelings of frustration towards institutions such as government or the media through humour and exaggeration. It’s a technique that’s been successfully adopted by many of America’s late night, liberal satire hosts; whether it’s Jon Stewart pointing out the absurdities in cable news reporting or John Oliver criticising the militarisation of American police forces.
The liberal satire of Stewart and Oliver is funny because it punches up against authority. Satire that punches downward by attacking the powerless, such as minority groups, is unfunny at best and downright offensive at its worst. According to Eric Boehlert, this is part of the reason why conservative attempts at comedy rarely work, because it tends to be anchored in seething hatred or casual contempt.
Of course, Littlejohn would likely argue that his satire punches up against the absurdities of the incompetent big state on behalf of ordinary readers. But the subtext of contempt for certain minority groups is clear and the Daily Mail wields a great deal more power than many of the people it attacks.
But it is the use of irony that is most problematic for right-wing satirists – and also the reason why Littlejohn’s article fails as a credible form of satire. Irony is key because it allows the satirist to successfully argue in favour of one position while also arguing against it.
The Daily Mail is known for its anti-immigration sentiment, so the article’s reference to flushing out illegal immigrants is not so much ironic, as a view that is echoed in much of its reporting.
Missing the joke
Failure to successfully implement irony in satire is not the only issue with which its practitioners have to contend. They should also consider the audience and their ability to correctly interpret its ironic intent. Research shows that this isn’t always the case – a study carried out by three US media academics in 2010 found that audiences regularly misinterpret the ironic messages found in satirical comedy. This is not necessarily to do with the knowledge or education of audience members – it’s more a reflection of different aesthetic tastes in comedy/satire.
For example, in her study of comedy audiences, Dannagal Young found that citizens with different political affiliations had preferences for different kinds of comedy. Conservatives seemed to prefer stories with a clear punchline and ending. Liberals, on the other hand, had more tolerance for stories that ended with uncertainty and ambiguity; traits that are closely associated with the practice of irony.
These are factors that perhaps Richard Littlejohn should have considered when writing his article. After all, satire is meant to provoke critical thinking in its audience. But judging by some of the readers’ comments and Twitter responses, many failed to see the irony, if there was any intended at all.
Littlejohn’s article has simply reinforced their negative views on illegal immigration and highlighted the disdain they feel towards some migrant groups.