ACCORDING to a news report in the Guardian covering the recently concluded annual Conservative Party conference in Manchester, Prime Ministerbumped into the newspaper’s political cartoonist, Steve Bell. At this chance encounter, the British PM asked: “Steve, when are you taking the condom off my head?”
This seemingly bizarre query was in reference to Bell’s re-invention of the Tory leader as an inflated condom in his hilariously rude cartoon strip. Taken aback, Bell is reported to have spluttered: “It’s too late!” Day in and day out, Guardian readers are regaled by the sight of the shiny, pink prime minister with a nipple above his head, and often in the company of the Chancellor,(depicted as a pig), discussing the issues of the day.
Despite the grossly offensive nature of the cartoons, Ofcom, the British media regulator, has never issued a notice to the Guardian, demanding that its cartoonist should be reined in. This tolerance of political satire is a sign of the maturity of the democratic tradition here.
In contrast, Pemra, Pakistan’s electronic media regulator, has recently “taken serious notice of satirical programmes”.
According to Pemra, they indulged in “character assassination, humiliation and defamation of dignitaries”. A Pemra spokesman announced that ads would soon be issued “to direct the channels to stop airing funny portrayals of dignitaries”.
Actually, most of our so-called dignitaries need to be deflated at regular intervals. In a recent BBC programme hosted by, the veteran broadcaster spoke about “pricking the pomposity of politicians”. This is a much-needed exercise that demands the talent and constant attention of our satirists. Our prominent figures, ranging from politicians to generals to bureaucrats, take themselves much too seriously, and deserve a regular toasting under bright studio lights.
The Pemra spokesman warned that if action is mot taken by TV channels, such satirical shows may “invite public wrath against the regulator”. Actually, what should invite public wrath is Pemra’s total failure in preventing the rubbish our TV chat show hosts regularly inflict on viewers. They and their guests toss around the most libellous accusations against politicians without let or hindrance. I have heard guests mention figures of bribes allegedly taken by one leader or another as though they were witnesses to the transactions. Facts are twisted, threats are hurled, poison is spewed, but Pemra is unmoved. In the regulator’s view, laughter is not allowed, but lies and distortions are.
In one of the most flagrant displays of dereliction of regulatory duty, a prominent anchor with a permanent smirk encouraged a guest to declare that Ahmadis were ‘wajib-ul qatal’, or deserving of death. Within days, two Ahmadis were murdered. Pemra was silent on the matter, as was the management of the large TV network.
Political satire has a long and honourable tradition in literature. From Jonathan Swift to Manto, writers have aimed wickedly effective attacks on authority and hypocritical social norms. With the advent of radio and TV (and more recently, the Internet), satirists have taken their sharp wit to larger audiences. So when the Pakistan government tried to introduce legislation aimed at protecting the political leadership from jokes posted on the Internet or sent by SMS, there were gales of laughter around the world.
The point Pemra should remember is that laughter is a healthy reaction to the stupidity of the ruling classes. Censorship has never been able to prevent us from circulating jokes about the pompous figures who strut about on the national stage. Even in Zia’s dark days, when censorship was absolute and the electronic media was tightly controlled, savage satire about the dictator did the rounds by word of mouth, or between the lines in the press. Indeed, dictatorships across the world are targeted, and often, humorous stories skip across borders, with only the names of the despots being changed.
Who can forget Tina Fey’s depiction ofon a TV show in which she caught the vacuous charm of the Alaskan candidate for vice-presidency? In a few short minutes of well-aimed satire, Fay has probably made Palin unelectable. In fact, after that TV programme, Palin no longer gives interviews for fear of being exposed in all her glorious ignorance.
Often, satire is intended as deadly serious comment and criticism, but sugar-coated in humour to make it palatable. The best satirists tend to portray their subjects accurately enough to recognise, while exaggerating some key feature. Thus, Steve Bell caricatures the Labour leader, Ed Milliband, as a panda-eyed, slightly demented man. Although George Bush was always depicted as a chimpanzee by Bell, the US president was instantly recognisable.
In Britain, nobody from the Queen downwards is immune from lampooning. In the US, stand-up comics regularly skewer the holy cows of the day. Private Eye, Britian’s iconic satirical magazine, has been sued numerous times for slander. It combines witty writing with investigative reporting that has embarrassed politicians and governments. France’s Le Canard Enchaine (The Chained Duck) has uncovered many scams and scandals in high places, and is required reading for the political class.
And while western politicians, like everybody else, don’t like being laughed at, they know they must put up with the barbs tossed their way by the media. In our part of the world, however, macho leaders can’t tolerate much criticism, especially when it comes wrapped in waspish humour.
I can understand Pemra’s predicament: every time some stuffed shirt in government is pilloried on TV, he gets humiliated and picks up the phone. The more senior the person in the spotlight, the greater the heat Pemra gets. In the good old days when PTV was the only show in town, keeping producers and writers in check was not a problem: anybody stepping out of line would soon be out of work.
But as TV channels have proliferated and competition for viewers and advertising has become fiercer, more controversial programming has become the norm. Sadly, much of this consists of hysterical chat shows. But every once in a while, satirical programmes like the one built around the marvellous Begum Nawazish light up our TV screens. These should be relished as long as they last.