Satirists targeted for taking on the powerful

As Private Eye celebrates its 50th anniversary in the UK, French society has united to support firebombed satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Laughing at politics has a long and controversial history.

For as long as dissent has existed, people have been using comedy to expose the crimes, misdemeanours and personal foibles of those who wield political power.

But across the ages, satire has also caused controversy and prompted retaliation and violence. Last week, the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were firebombed after a front cover appeared to mock the Prophet Mohammed. It is an echo of the long saga in Denmark where publication of a cartoon depicting the Prophet caused worldwide protests and resulted in death threats against the artist.

Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye, the weekly satirical magazine that has just celebrated its 50th birthday, has been sued more than anyone else in the history of English law.

Despite fuelling strong emotions, though, satire is highly valued in democracies. For example, pundits from all political persuasions in France rushed to support Charlie Hebdo‘s right to offend.

Private Eye’s trademark irreverence, which targets politics, the media, corporations and the professions, builds on a long tradition of barbed comedy. The magazine takes much of its inspiration from 18th Century writers, who presented twisted, exaggerated scenarios as factual accounts to highlight the ‘vices’ of their subjects.

Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal mocks a callous attitude to the poor by suggesting the impoverished sell their children as food for the wealthy. At the time, men like Swift, a social outsider, rocked the political establishment by revealing the hypocrisy and weakness of those in power. But satirists have lampooned these follies since the days of Ancient Greece and Rome.

Private Eye seems pessimistic about satire’s ability to change things: its anniversary cover self-mockingly pointed out that half a century ago the magazine was making jokes about old Etonians ‘making a hash of running the country,’ and that it has the same target today.

Change through laughter?

For many people, satire is an essential tool for exposing important problems. By making people laugh, it forces them to pay attention to those running our societies, fuelling intelligent criticism. By exposing the fallibility of the powerful, does it inspire citizens to get involved and do better, both in judgment and action?

Some argue that if we just laugh at society’s problems, our dissent is passive: we sneer, but do nothing to change the situation. Perhaps turning serious issues into jokes prevents us from taking action about the things that matter.

You Decide

  1. Are there some subjects that should not be targets for comedy?
  2. Does satire empower us to act on important issues, or numb us into passivity?


  1. Have a go at writing your own satire. Pick an issue you feel strongly about, and try to expose what you see as the faults of that person or situation. Should you be gentle or cutting in your criticism?
  2. Select a piece of writing, a TV show or cartoon that’s commonly perceived as satire. Analyse the text, and think about why it is called satire. Compare it to other texts. Can you come to a good definition of the genre?

Some People Say...

“Laughter is the most powerful form of criticism.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Are there different kind of satire?
Absolutely. Satire can attack politics, society, celebrity or the media. It also varies in the ways it tackles its subjects:Horatian satire gently mocks 'follies', or foolish mistakes, while savage Juvenalian condemns.
What kind of satire is most popular today?
Spoof television news programmes, like Jon Stewart'sThe Daily Show, are popular, and often satirise media treatment of issues rather than the issues themselves. And audiences often like impressionists because of their skill in impersonations.
Is satire a global phenomenon?
Absolutely. Satire is more visible in democracies, but even in oppressive regimes or conservative cultures it flourishes underground. Some even believe that internet censorship in China encourages creative satire, by forcing people to think of ever-more creative ways to communicate their dissent.

Word Watch

Vocal opposition to an idea or policy.
Prophet Mohammed
The Islamic messenger of God, and founder of Islam. Muslims regard Mohammed with deep reverence, and many believe that any depictions of him should be prohibited.
Former pupils of Eton College, perhaps the most famous private school in England, which has long been associated with privilege and wealth. Prime Minister David Cameron attended the school, as did his predecessor as Conservative PM 50 years ago, Harold Macmillan.
Jonathan Swift
An Anglo-Irish journalist and prose satirist, most famous for Gulliver's Travels.
Drawing on the work of Roman poet Horace, Horatian satire is gentle and playful, poking indulgent fun.
Inspired by the Roman poet Juvenal, writing in the 1st and 2nd century AD: a far angrier form of satire, harsh and indignant.


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