May 22, 2020 09:35
Photo: RTHK

‘Satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own; which is the chief reason for that kind of reception it meets with in the world and that so very few are offended with it.’ So said Jonathan Swift, the great 18th century Irish satirist.

Sadly, immune to satire, the present-day police commissioner of Hong Kong sees the reflection of “Asia’s finest” in the mirror.

With that measure of hypersensitivity common to people in high places who value their personal dignity above all else, the commissioner complained that RTHK’s satirical show Headliner mocked his force.

Satire is a powerful antidote against pompous and overweening authority.

Webster’s dictionary describes it as ‘work holding up human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn’.

What constitutes human vice or folly, inevitably, is a matter of individual perception but satire really comes into its own when it hits home.

Part of the commissioner’s complaint was that the show compared the shortage of personal protective equipment for front line medical staff with the comprehensive protective gear of police officers.

The Communications Authority found that the broadcaster had implied that the government made an “unfair or inappropriate” allocation of protective gear, showing bias towards the force.

Perhaps, one may fairly comment, only by people seriously lacking a sense of humour.

The facts are that in early February 2020 the Hong Kong Association of Nursing Staff were warning of shortages of PPE kit for frontline staff. By way of contrast, self-evidently, police officers were habitually appearing in public kitted out in full face shields or individual gas mask respirators.

So, was the satire not based on an apparent truth?

Satire is most effective when it targets accurately, consequently I disagree with Lord Byron when he said, “I’ll publish, right or wrong; fools are my theme; let satire be my song.”

Childish hypersensitivity to criticism is foolishness; but in Hong Kong we had better be prepared for an unadulterated diet of such childish behaviour.

The manifest objective of Hong Kong’s government is to banish discussion. The schools’ syllabus is to be fashioned so as to produce generations of unquestioning little communist party cadres.

This is the environment for eventual rule by the thought police.

At this very moment in time, the Chief Executive demands unquestioning obedience to her diktat. How does this differ from the system in the mainland?

The enemy of authoritarian rule is the inquiring mind.

History is redolent of fascistic regimes that first purge society of its writers, journalists, lawyers, academics. Why? Because they ask the questions to which there is no reputable answer.

The Chinese Communist Party maintains its hold over the population by controlling freedom of thought and expression.

The conditioned reflex reaction of the Hubei authorities was to silence Dr. Li Wenliang, despite the fact that he spoke the truth and that prompt response might well have saved thousands of lives.

Already Hong Kong’s Chief Executive has accepted the IPCC’s recommendation for the police, in consultation with the media, to work out a code of practice for cooperation during public order events.

But without unhindered access, who will report on the manner in which protests are policed? Without journalists, wrongdoing goes uncatalogued and the use of force runs unaccountable.

Journalism is an increasingly dangerous profession, just remember Charlie Hebdo in Paris, Jan Kuciak in Slovakia, Gauri Lankesh in India and Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey, to name but a recent few.

Unless you are a Donald Trump or a Chris Tang, satire is the least offensive form of criticism. It always looks for the humorous aspect of human vices and follies because most of us find it more readily digestible if it makes us laugh.

A brilliant example was the series ‘Spitting Image’ created for Independent Television in England in 1984. Cartoon images of leading British and foreign politicians – in themselves hilarious by over-emphasizing their facial characteristics – performed skits based on their quirky behaviour or political follies.

Several of the politicians lampooned in the programme begged the producers to allow them to have the huge rubber heads of their likeness.

As for the suggestion by a Chinese University lecturer that the BBC would never have permitted a programme like Headliner, he did not have the benefit of being senior enough to acquaint himself with the programme ‘That Was The Week That Was’ written by Ned Sherrin for BBC television as far back as 1962 and 1963 and presented by David Frost.

British and foreign politicians of every persuasion were and continue to be subjected to mickey taking to the delight of the vast audience across the country in programmes like ‘Have I Got News For You’ on the BBC.

What these programmes also reflect is the maturity of a political system capable of laughing at itself.

Any political system that loses the ability to laugh at its own vices and follies is heading for extinction.

The great Roman satirist Juvenal said, “It’s hard not to write satire.” Can you imagine how he would have relished Trump, Kim Jong Un et al?

Satire comes in countless forms, the political cartoon being the most direct. Clever cartoonists capture the folly graphically: think of Harry in the South China Morning Post – the only thing worth buying the paper for – Banx in the Financial Times and the Economist’s brilliant KAL aka Kevin Kallaugher.

KAL says, pithily, ‘I think you can measure the maturity of a society by the amount of satire it can endure.’

When society’s small potatoes are no longer able to laugh at the vices and follies of the high and mighty, that will signal the end of freedom of expression.

The reality is that it is impossible to satirise behaviour unless it is, by its very nature, open to be exposed or discredited.

Don’t let them shoot the satirist, he is the barometer of freedom.

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King's Counsel