‘Imagining the Deaths of Rupert Murdoch and Bill Leak: Honi Soit’s Reassuring Satire’, by Dan Dixon

What we want from comedy usually depends on who we want to see suffer – and student journalists, unsurprisingly, wish suffering upon the creators and beneficiaries of Australia’s conservative media. Honi Soit, the University of Sydney’s student-run newspaper, has doubled down on this proposition: for the final week of semester two, 2016, Honi abandoned its magazine-style format and printed a complete broadsheet parody of The Australian with such astonishing verisimilitude that a fairly long glance reveals no obvious differences. It even elicited a caveated compliment from the national paper’s CEO. The front page is almost indistinguishable from that of The Australian, but examination reveals that the masthead actually reads “THE AUSRTAILAN”. There is also the strikingly Oedipal front-page headline, which declares “RUPERT MURDOCH DEAD AT 85” only to concede late in the article that it was, in fact, “some other old geezer called Rupert. I’m so sorry.”

It’s an Honi tradition for the year’s final issue to be satirical, but it is unlikely that the paper, established in 1929, has ever attempted a satire so comprehensive. There is the occasional typo and awkwardly constructed sentence. But it’s not about minutiae; it’s a long, loud, mocking laugh. Many of the jokes are the obvious jokes, though some are not. Many are funny, though many are not. Given the time available and effort required to put this together, it’s an impressive piece of satire: amusing, clever, and pointed. It’s also cloistered and vicious.

Honi is funniest in the small absurdities. An “Apology” section at the foot of page two regrets “all previous editions of The Australian”; an article about “metadata insecurity” wonders “What if your data just wants to talk about its feelings?” Another has ISIS assaulting the wine-producing region of Mosel in order to “stake a claim to the lucrative German Riesling market.” For the most part, the best writing here is the least political. Honi is sharpest in its matter-of-fact, Onion-like twists and turns of logic that typify how the pragmatic tone and structure of traditional newspaper journalism is so often unmoored from the nature of its own content.

The exhaustiveness of the parody is novel and fun, and that can be enough. But it is worth wondering what satire of this sort does, and who is listening. What happens when satire is vicious and what happens when it is genuinely funny? Honi is both. So is it rousing those who already agree, shaming its targets, or some combination of the two?

The Australian is the target both because its hysterical boomer self-righteousness lends itself to satire and because the newspaper is the mouthpiece of those who have bequeathed an increasingly unlivable world to the generation who writes and edits Honi. The Australian has led the charge against what it characterises as the insidious evils of housing affordability, identity politics, and political correctness. In 2016 it has waged some notably absurd campaigns. The paper’s attitude is typified by an article published earlier in the year penned by the ABC’s political editor, Chris Uhlmann. Uhlmann responded to journalists condemning Tony Abbott’s decision to address a far-right American Christian group by claiming they were failing to “back free speech”. He attempted to trace the birth of these “tolerance police” to a 1930s plot hatched by Frankfurt School academics who aimed to destroy Western values. It is unlikely Uhlmann was aware that he was employing the language of a wildly anti-semitic conspiracy theory; such thinking passes as common sense in The Australian’s editorial pages. It believes that to accuse someone of implicitly endorsing bigotry—whether because of their language, or their decision to address a reactionary organisation that uses its vast resources to block access to same-sex marriage and abortion—is to violate their freedom.

This confusion reflects the conflation of the desire to insult with the right to free speech, which allows for the continued employment of resident cartoonist Bill Leak. Leak has been defended in the pages of The Australian—and, recently, by our Prime Minister—as a kind of witty champion of the politically incorrect, those who would courageously defend our right to wear blackface or be misogynists. This is despite Leak relentlessly sketching characters that resemble keynote speakers at a xenophobic caricature conference. There are reasonable criticisms to be made of identity politics, but “I refuse to hear from those who tell me I am perpetuating structures that cause their oppression” is one of the less convincing takes.

And recently, of course, we have the Bernard Salt smashed avocado debacle. Honi prints a faux-Salt response on their front page, aping and ridiculing the columnist’s claim that oversensitive millennials simply failed to recognise that his original, controversial column was actually a nuanced satire of boomer conservatism. Returning to that column, it is clear that it is indeed satire of some sort, but Salt is mostly lampooning the perception of boomers, and is doing it poorly. He mistakes hyperbole and clumsy linguistic pretention (using “malicious aforethought” where he means “malice aforethought”, “despoiling” where he means “ruining”, and “mere ephemera” where he means “trivial”) for comedy. The column caused a backlash because it reads as blunted, unfunny, and unclear. The premise of Salt’s article is that he is speaking exclusively to a secret society of fellow boomers, baffled at the impenetrable hipster café society (where the only consistent definition of “hipster” is “that sleek someone who makes you socially uneasy”). The clichéd half-joke here is that young people are irredeemably alien. It’s only a half-joke because no effort is made to suggest that actually they aren’t.

Salt’s muddled spoof and Honi’s “Ausrtailan” issue serve as reminders of how these two self-assured interlocutors (the left and right, millennials and boomers, scrappy student journalists and overpaid newspaper columnists) prefer to talk past each other. Each basks in the glow of rhetorical victory when the other is riled up, and, reasonably, neither expects to convert their foe. Neither wants mutually constructive conversation, because neither can imagine what such a conversation would look like.

This issue of Honi is least funny where it is most vicious, but this is not so much a failure of comedy as it is a disclosure of anxiety and fury. It’s telling that Honi contains grimly unfunny headlines announcing both Rupert Murdoch and Bill Leak to be deceased. For those who will never own a home unless they inherit one, constructive conversation is only available when the homeowners are dead. Honi readers can find solace in the mortality of those who belittle them.

If we cannot reach those we’re satirising—and publically imagining their death probably precludes us from meaningfully doing so—then what do we want from satire? It’s difficult to analyse comedy without being painfully humourless. Deconstructing it is like pulling apart a watch in order to understand why the year went by so fast. This is because it is never entirely clear what comedy is meant to achieve, aside from reinforcing our connections with some people and endorsing disconnections from others. The rhetoric might clear the way for recognition or illumination, but any good joke must have nonsense at its core. This is why the idea of ISIS descending on the Mosel is funny, and why Rupert dying is not. Prioritise audience consensus over aimless nonsense and political satire becomes unfunny and lame, even when that audience approves: the jokes become hollowed out by the desire for effective polemic. (The Daily Showchasing applause lines before laugh lines is a good example of this.)

Satire is most often meaningful in its capacity to unite and reassure the like-minded. This is not a bad thing. While partisan skewering can occasionally effect a degree of change, or increase awareness of some topic, it cannot reliably do so. A dedicated subscriber to our country’s national broadsheet will not mistakenly pick up the latest copy of Honi and lose their monocle due to its extraordinarily thorough trolling. Yet satire of this sort remains worthwhile. It’s a pretty funny salvo in the ongoing attempt of various outlets to draw attention to the ideologically narrow-minded inanity in which our national newspaper so frequently traffics. Readers of Honi’s “Ausrtailan” edition will see what they expect: an unsophisticated whine or a righteous shredding. But this is not because the satire is insufficient; it’s because nobody likes being wrong.

Dan Dixon is completing a PhD in English at the University of Sydney.