Jack Cannon: Satire is essential to hold power to account

Private Eye editor Ian Hislop is enjoying a sales boom. Picture: Carl Court AFP/Getty Images.
Private Eye editor Ian Hislop is enjoying a sales boom. Picture: Carl Court AFP/Getty Images.
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Satire is synonymous with democratic freedoms and should be defended at all costs.

From democracy’s origins in Athens, satire has permeated open societies. Aristophanes’ scathing attacks on the demagogue Cleon in his comedy The Knights, performed in 424 BC, is an example of how humour has been used to criticise leading political figures since democracy’s beginnings.

The importance of satire should never be understated. Its ability to hold the powerful to account, whilst also informing and entertaining those who read, listen or watch it, is ­startling. Its relevance has ­never been stronger and many of ­satire’s proponents relish the wealth of material our politicians provide them with.

Ian Hislop, editor of the ­thriving satirical magazine ­Private Eye, acknowledges that current events are favourable for the satire business. He told the Andrew Marr Show: “When things are polarised, when ­personalities are very strong, satire gets more popular.”

The divisiveness of the EU ­referendum, not to mention the US election, have evidently ­provided the ideal conditions for the rise in satire’s popularity. Private Eye, at odds with British media print sales, is enjoying a 9 per cent rise year on year. American late night shows are as popular as ever – Alec Baldwin’s depiction of President Trump and Melissa McCarthy’s portrayal of Sean Spicer, US Press Secretary, have been viewed millions of times on YouTube.

But, contrary to Hislop’s belief that ­contemporary ­politics ­provides ripe material for ­comics, Trey Parker, one of the writers of the US ­animated comedy South Park, believes that the sheer absurdity of the Trump administration actually makes it more difficult to satirise. Parker told 7.30: “It’s really tricky now because ­satire has kind of become reality... what was actually happening was way funnier than anything we could come up with.”

Residents of tolerant, liberal societies are fortunate in that, for now at least, comics are protected from persecution by the fundamentals of democracy – freedom of speech, expression and the right to criticise.

Others have had this privilege stripped from them. According to the BBC, in the last few years more than 2000 cases have been initiated for ‘offending’ the increasingly autocratic Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – a man with literally no sense of humour.

Moreover, the Kouachi brothers, offended by ­depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, gunned down writers at the Parisian magazine Charlie Hebdo.

The sacrifice of those who lost their lives in the 2014 Charlie Hebdo attacks is a reminder to us all that the freedom to satirise should never taken for granted.

Satire is, therefore, essential for any open minded ­society to function – be it ­classical Athens or the 21st century west.

Jack Cannon is a third year Classical Studies student at University of St Andrews.