Satire is out? They can't be serious
Date: May 30 2002
A court decision has delivered a low blow to comedians and the good old
Aussie sense of humour, writes Andrew Bock.
A serious miscarriage of humour was upheld by a full bench of the Federal
Court of Australia last week. In a copyright wrangle over the use of TV
footage, the full court ruled, among other things, that satire alone did
not constitute a form of criticism, review or news reportage.
Aristophanes, Juvenal, Chaucer and Moliere would be turning in their
graves. Barry Humphries, Clive James and John Clarke are not likely to be
The court's frightening conclusion issues a restriction to comedians in
Australia. But perhaps a worse outcome of the ruling is that it may force
the electronic media to take current affairs even more seriously.
The case concerned a dust-up over the use of Nine's footage by Ten's
satirical current affairs show The Panel, which rebroadcast a number of
pieces of Nine's footage and made fun of the subjects, without paying for
the footage. The copyright act allows one to borrow footage or reproduce
works for the purposes of making a news story or for the purposes of
criticism or review.
Much time was spent in court debating what constituted a serious news
treatment and what was merely "poking fun".
Justice Finkelstein argued in classic deadpan style that John Howard
singing Happy Birthday to Donald Bradman on the Midday show was newsworthy.
"An incident where the prime minister of a country has behaved in a way
which some might call `silly' is certainly newsworthy," Finkelstein
declared. His argument implies that Howard does not always appear "silly".
Discussion of the merits of particular Panel segments relied upon making a
distinction between news and entertainment. The judges admitted this was
not an easy distinction to make but nevertheless persisted. A singing prime
minister was considered newsworthy. Silly disguises used by anonymous
interviewees were merely entertainment.
The court's assessment of other segments from The Panel hinged on the
notion that making fun was not fair dealing unless there was also an
element of serious or "recognisable" criticism. In other words, the court
managed to rule that it is no defence to make fun of something unless you
also take it seriously.
Some would argue that in the case of Howard singing, this is impossible.
Satire - having a lend - is an Australian institution. It saves us from
political correctness. It saves us from being defined. It saves us from the
tyranny of the establishment, which is often the tyranny of the serious.
The right to razz ought to be preserved in the Constitution, let alone the
Ten's counsel should have argued that the whole problem here was that Nine
couldn't take a joke.
An absurd outcome of the court's decision is that it may now be safer and
cheaper to produce serious current affairs programs than funny current
Michael Hirsh, co-executive producer of the The Panel, said the ruling may
restrict all stations, including Nine, from creating programs easily from
one another's footage.
Nine has arguably shot itself in the foot. This ruling cannot be good for
ratings. It may also make it harder for TV shows to satirise other shows.
This, in turn, means the media may be forced to take itself seriously. This
is not good for ratings or circulation either. It is satire, for example,
that gives radio breakfast shows their popularity.
I once asked the comedian Glynn Nicholas why he thought people liked
comedians more than politicians. His response was deadpan: "Because they're
The law, it seems, would have the media treat all subjects in the way that
lawyers do - seriously and critically. This is not an especially surprising
ruling to come from an institution which excels in taking itself seriously.
You're not allowed to make fun of the law. You'll pay if you do, mate.
Which is why lawyers make particularly good comedy subjects.
John Cleese once said that humans were funniest when they took themselves
most seriously. By his reasoning, judges are perhaps the best comedians in
the country. Which is no doubt why they felt qualified to limit the use of
Andrew Bock is a former Age journalist.
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