Evolution of Political Satire in British Media

In this week's newsletter, Paul Furey, our Commissioning Editor, considers how satire in British media, from classic literature to contemporary platforms like Private Eye and Banksy's works, serves as a dynamic force for social commentary, challenging power structures and engaging the public in political consciousness despite risks of offence and oversimplification.

“Satire is the bringing to ridicule of vice, folly, and humbug.” – Ian Hislop

Social commentary in the form of satire has been present almost since the very first literary works. It is a dynamic and often provocative genre which allows for a casual approach to serious topics, unravelling complex situations into a digestible and universalised format, helping spread political consciousness among the masses. It can be used to illuminate contradictions in our own behaviours, as a tool to challenge the most powerful, or even as a means to strive towards the moral reform of society. It also carries a myriad of critiques. Its many simplifications of political activity can be said to let the finer details and nuances of politics get lost on the general public. The sacrifice of accurate reporting for humour is hardly easy to justify, especially when consumer bases are more drawn to mediums that are easier to comprehend. The fine line many comedians walk is one shared by satirists who always run the risk, in such a goading form of media, of being labelled as ‘distasteful’. Just last year the Guardian’s long-serving satire cartoonist, Steve Bell, was sacked for a drawing of Benjamin Netanyahu which played into an anti-semitic trope. But, nearly 10 years on from the Charlie Hebdo attack, the importance and necessity of satire is still salient. 

The British media, particularly, has always had a strong grasp on utilising satire to its full effect. From the works of Shakespeare, such as Richard III, and of Jonathan Swift through Gulliver’s Travels and A Modest Proposal, or even in Orwell’s Animal Farm, whether it’s tackling royalty, religion, economic exploitation, or socialism, British authors have been on the forefront of these satirical works, always evolving with the times and picking up on shifts in the rifts of society. 

Punch magazine was based in London from 1841 and survived until 2002. It was one of the first satirical publications to take advantage of the rise of mass printing technologies. Punch focused on sophisticated humour and avoided offensive material. Still, it was renowned for its radical coverage of politics, moreso even than its cartoons. It attacked ‘The Establishment’ and appealed to middle class intellectuals. It peaked at a weekly circulation of over 180,000 but began to experience a steady decline following World War Two, itself falling into the trap of becoming associated too closely with ‘The Establishment’. 

Today, Private Eye is Britain’s leading current affairs satire magazine. It has built upon the legacy of Punch with prominent criticism of leading public figures. However, to offer an alternative, Private Eye would stoop to juvenile jokes and make notable use of graphics, especially on their front covers. But the most impressive features are its in-depth investigative pieces which delve into under-reported scandals and cover-ups. Much use has been made of the Freedom of Information Act to report on such government improprieties. These have become a testament to how satire can work hand-in-hand with more conventional forms of journalism to engage readers with the political climate.
Satire in British media still survives, thriving now more than ever with the contemporary works of Banksy showcasing how political satire can take any form. The rise of social media has given everyday members of the public access to platforms which allow satire to be created and spread more easily. Indeed, the rise of broadcast has led to a string of political satires, from Yes Minister right through to The Thick of It. Political satire is more present and potent in our lives now than it has ever been.

By Paul Furey, Commissioning Editor

Published by Anabelle Zaris