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Attempting ‘humour’

By Jenny Ejlak - posted Thursday, 29 October 2009

The spate of controversy-causing media stunts seems to have died down, but I wonder if anyone has learnt from these experiences. Opinion columns, letters pages and blogs have been running hot debating whether heads should roll, whether we are all too precious, or whether the moral compass has shifted. I think it is none of these.

Humour and satire has a long history in Australia, with an irreverence and egalitarian approach to taking the piss out of just about anyone. No news there.

There was a fundamental difference, though, between the usual targets of such satirical attempts at humour, and the recent examples which caused so much uproar.


Usual targets of ridicule like politicians, actors, media figures and those famous for not much at all, or satirical assaults on large institutions such as banks and companies are one thing. These are all powerful people who choose their career path knowing it will put them in the public arena or institutions which are “fair game”. If they cop flack for something they do in the course of their professional roles - that’s all part and parcel of the job.

There is a big difference between the above and the ridicule of people who are powerless and vulnerable, with the clear potential that the ridicule will do further damage to others in similar situations or to those who have lived through such situations in the past.

Chaser’s War on Everything began the poorly judged spate with the “don’t bother, they’re only going to die anyway” skit about children with cancer. I don’t think I need to explain why such children and their families are vulnerable and sensitive and don’t see the humour in watching their child suffer and die.

Victims of sexual assault were next in line - twice in fact. First, a 14-year-old questioned about her sexual experiences - a stupid thing to do on live radio regardless of any history of assault, given she was below the age of consent and any sexual behaviour would have by definition involved criminal activity.

Then there was the “group sex by netballers” parody of a Four Corners report about abusive sexual behaviour by rugby players, as told by the women traumatised by the degrading and inhumane way they were treated. Given the defence of the “players” I probably do need to explain that sexual behaviour need not be proven to be a criminal act in order to be an aggressive act of power, designed to degrade and humiliate, and can cause long term psycho-emotional suffering. Many women have survived abusive sexual behaviour from men, criminal or otherwise, reported or not, and would have felt doubly ridiculed and belittled watching the new ABC program the Hungry Beast make a big joke out of their experiences.

The Hey Hey it’s Saturday reunion special chose a larger group for their “entertainment” - several generations of African-Americans subjected to institutionalised, legalised and brutally enforced discrimination - some of whom would still be alive to remember the “bad old days” and many more having grown up hearing the experiences of their parents and grandparents.


In these scenarios, none of these targets chose a career path that would put them in the public eye like a politician or a banker. None of their experiences were carried out in the course of public duties. Some were brave enough to talk about their experience in the hope it would encourage others to not feel ashamed and fearful - what false hope that was!

So I don’t think the recent disquiet has been conservatism, lack of a sense of humour or political correctness gone mad but a simple case of media lacking judgment about who is “fair game” and who is not.

Let’s hope they have all learnt something.

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About the Author

Jenny Ejlak is Secretary of Reproductive Choice Australia.

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