Vale Election Coverage

Those of you who are Media Watch fans would have noticed that fearless prosecutor of all that’s dubious in the Australian media – no, it doesn’t run for three hours a day every day, why do you ask? – turned its sights this week onto the final episode of The Hamster Decides:

Hello, I’m Paul Barry, welcome to Media Watch.

And as you roar with laughter or reel with shock let me say it’s not normally my job to get stuck into comedy programs.

But after weeks of tackling the Tele for putting Kevin Rudd on the front page in a Nazi uniform, we could hardly ignore the Hamster Decides’ portrayal of the Australian newspaper’s Chris Kenny as a sexual pervert…

No doubt the Chaser team’s defence is that it’s satire.

But I can see nothing satirical or clever in the suggestion that Kenny—who is one of the ABC’s noisiest critics—has sex with animals.

We would have thought the big difference between The Hamster Decides and The Daily Telegraph is that one is a comedy show and the other is a joke. No, wait we can do better: one makes the nation laugh on a regular basis, and the other is an ABC television program! Nailed it.

Obviously the real defence is that The Hamster Decides is advertised and promoted as comedy, is made by professional comedians, and is compromised almost entirely of material that, whether you laugh or not, can clearly be defined by anyone with even the tiniest sense of humour as “comedy”. In contrast, The Daily Telegraph pretends to be an serious news organisation and expects to be treated as such. The Daily Telegraph‘s front page was a disgrace because it was coming from a supposedly unbiased news organisation as a serious contribution to political discussion, not simply because it claimed Kevin Rudd was a Nazi (if it had been an editorial cartoon – you know, Rudd in the fuhrerbunker during the final days – the outrage would have been a lot less).

So why go The Chaser over this? Especially when it was roughly the same joke as the infamous “Weary Dunlop: Transsexual” joke on The Micallef P(ro)gram(me) – the joke being “here’s the kind of thing that shows how dodgy the ABC is”, where the joke isn’t the idea (or in the Hamster‘s case, the doctored photo) itself, but the idea that the ABC would show such a thing. Did Media Watch really not get the joke? Did they not care because an obviously fake photo in 2013 is so shocking there could be no possible justification – comedic or otherwise – for showing it? Or is the week of an incoming Abbott government just a really good time to say “hey, we don’t like people picking on the Liberals”?

Either way, at least it left The Hamster Decides seeming like it was still somewhere close to what passes for a cutting edge in Australia. Which is roughly ten kilometres behind what was cutting edge on UK television a decade ago, but at least we’re up to date on Midsomer Murders. Seriously, when your opening joke is “the election is finally over” – because having to decide who will run the country for the next however many years is such a pointless chore, right guys? –  it’s hard not to get the feeling we’d all rather be off doing something else.

Increasingly The Hamster Wheel / Decides feels like the kind of show The Chaser should handball off to someone else – or at the very least, start bringing up a new crop of people to carry some of the burden.  It’s not like Australia couldn’t do with a “satirical review” that went for, say, 20 weeks a year, but The Chaser version 2013 don’t really feel like the guys to host it.

Oh, The Hamster Decides was solid enough – more than solid when Andrew Hansen and Chas Licciardello were doing “Inside the Wheel”, which by series end was spitting out gags at a furious pace (and featured the two members of The Chaser who don’t seem identical to the other three) – but as the grandfather of all these shows, Saturday Night Live, has proven over and over again, you need to freshen up the on-air talent every now and again.

Still, it’s a little churlish to be griping about pretty much the only group of seasoned comedy professionals on Australian television. Remember Wednesday Night Fever? Even with the politician-pandering “Question Time” segment The Hamster Decides was literally a billion times better than that crap. But it did on occasion lack the spark that separates the hard-working from the inspired. These guys have been at it for over a decade now and they know how to get the job done; bringing in some new blood – or even teaming up with someone established who can bring fresh eyes to this whole “politics and the media” deal – certainly couldn’t hurt.


Meanwhile over at Gruen Nation, we have a question: how much election advertising did you see this year? Because outside Gruen Nation we didn’t really see all that much, what with commercial television being pretty much dead to anyone not interested in talent shows or sport. In fact, we’d suggest that since 2008 (when Gruen began) the reach of traditional advertising has been steadily shrinking. And yet Gruen keeps on airing for half the year. Even though it’s increasingly irrelevant. Huh.

At least regular Gruen is just sucking up to people who want to sell us crap. Gruen Nation is a whole ‘nother level of vile. Traditional political satire, whether you think it works or not, at least pretends to mock politicians. This is a good thing, because politicans need to be mocked. Mockery is how their egos are (hopefully, maybe… you know how it works) deflated, reminding them that they’re the servants of the people and not our lords and masters. It’s one of the few ways ordinary folks can strike back at the rich and powerful

Gruen Nation doesn’t do anything like that. The opposite in fact: it eagerly flatters the powerful. “Look,” it says, “your attempts to win us over are worthy of 45 minutes of analysis and discussion every week”. Sure, it makes fun of the clumsy ads they put out – but it also praises the smart ads, and more importantly it always comes down on the side of political advertising. It never says “let’s just ignore this crap” – it can’t, otherwise there’d be no show. And that would be a bad thing how?

The 2013 version of Gruen Nation was, unsurprisingly thanks to its’ solid ratings, more of the same. Adding Marieke Hardy 2.0, AKA Annabel Crabb to anything doesn’t improve it; that ex-Labour staffer guy got off a few sharp lines but who cares? All Gruen has ever done is congratulate its audience on being too smart to be sucked in by advertising – only this time it doesn’t matter how ad-resistant you are because when it comes to politics you can’t not buy the product.

Forget the shoddy banter and Wil Anderson’s shoe-horned in asides and the way they get ad agencies to make their sketches for them (with, it must be said, diminishing returns): Gruen Nation‘s big problem is that its very premise is fatally flawed. With regular Gruen the idea is meant to be that they’re empowering the consumer. “This is how advertising works,” they say, “and now you have seen behind the curtain, you’ll be able to make better, more informed choices – or even no choice at all.” This is, of course, bullcrap, but this post has gone on long enough already; just read any of our other rants on Gruen if you’d like to know more.

But with an election, none of that applies. Most people are already rusted onto one-party or another; many others live in electorates where their choice simply doesn’t matter. At best you get a choice between a tiny range of near-identical politicians and you have to choose one. If you decide not to by a brand of make-up because of their dodgy faux-feminist advertising, you don’t have that make-up in your house: if you decide not to vote, the government that gets voted in by everyone else still controls large chunks of your life.

So why the fuck did we need five 45-minute episodes looking at commercials hardly anyone saw that were advertising identical products where our individual choice meant next to nothing? Gruen Nation was a naked insult to our intelligence, bolstering politicians egos while pretending that politics was nothing more than a fashion choice we could take or leave. Caring about issues? You have to pay us to do that.

As for the rest of us, this was nothing but a peek into a walled garden of privilege where the elite mused on issues beyond the average citizen. Sure, if you’re as rich as every one of the smug fucks on the panel, maybe you can just use every single service with “private” on the front and pretend voting means nothing more than choosing a cool pair of sneakers: everyone else just exists to be sold to and may the best marketer win.

Do we need to point out that marketing is, by its very nature, an attempt to pervert democracy? Do we need to point out that Gruen Nation was a show celebrating the efforts of political parties to lie to and manipulate voters? Do we need to point out that this is a show that would work exactly the same way if Australia was a one-party dictatorship? Democracy: who needs it when Gruen Nation is rating over a million viewers a week.



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  • Baudolino says:

    I’ve said it before, but I find your attitude to politicians appearing on satirical television shows unfathomably absolutist. Simply allowing them to appear on your show does not amount to a tacit endorsement of their policies and ideas, and there is also no inherent reason why it should compromise the integrity of the satire. Political satire is a means of deriving comedy from the process of politics – exposing hypocrisy, ridiculing gaffes and mocking political rhetoric – however it is not hostile to politics as a whole. Most satirists are involved with satire because they are passionate about politics and appreciate the importance of the role it plays in society. The idea of the ‘detached critic of the system of politics’ strikes me as only partially satisfactory as a definition of a satirists’ job.

    Stewart and Colbert invite politicians on their shows all the time. Obama has even made appearances in sketches for Colbert. Would you describe that as pandering or sycophantic?

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    Interesting that you get all that from two words – “politician-pandering” – in a 1500 word post. Nothing else there caught your eye?

  • urinal cake says:

    I don’t know. As long as it makes it us laugh what should we care? It’s comedy. The thing is these people (satirists- I’m looking at you Pickering and politicians) are so smug and vile it’s hard to laugh. Even at them.

  • Baudolino says:

    What does it matter whether my post was based off the whole body of the article, or a couple of words? If you impose that restriction you’re just eliminating the possibility of people discussing anything even remotely tangential to the main points raised in the blog.

    I agreed with most of the rest of your article. Generally speaking I adore Media Watch as a show and most of the time the sanctimonious attitude is well-earned and well-directed, but holy hell that Chaser story was embarrassing. Especially given how deliberately unsubtle Hansen and Licciardello were making the whole “ABC depravity” thing, it’s hard to understand how Barry and the Media Watch team could have missed the joke.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    We don’t mind comments drifting off-topic, but we didn’t want to go over that ground again – our views on the matter of politicians appearing on comedy shows is pretty well established and it’s not really a debate we’re interested in revisiting. We think it’s never a good thing, many disagree. Case closed.

    The Media Watch question is the real question here – since when have they policed comedy? And yeah, The Chaser’s joke wasn’t exactly subtle. It really felt like pressure was coming from somewhere (internal or external, from Liberal-biased places or just the MW team’s desire to be “fair” after their goes at the Daily Telegraph) to even the score. Even though the context around the image was totally different to the Telegraph’s front page.

    Or it could just be that someone at Media Watch is really really prudish.

  • simbo says:

    In terms of refreshing the Chaser team’s panel, it’s obvious that Lee Zacharaiah, at the very least, has got to be considred to have an inside edge (being in the writers room already, and having fronted his own program). And in a comedy industry that actually worked and provided a succession career in commercial TV (a world where The Unbelievable Truth was still running, or, indeed, any of the Chaser Team’s attempts at programming individually away from the team), there probably would have been some breakup.

    But given that hasn’t happened… everybody’s still riding along while the job’s still there. In a country where actual producing was done, I suspect Morrow, Reucassel and Taylor would have split off-air by now (and it’s quite possible they do a lot more in the writers room, including the items presented by Hansen-Liccardello – but the segments they front are comparitively weaker and it’s on-air performance that should count in whether someone stays on air).

    Oh, and Just checking the TV tonight ratings – Gruen Nation won Wednesday night when looking at timeshifted ratings, and was the third on non-timeshifted after 9 and seven’s news. Unnecessary it may be, but audiences lap it up.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    We dimly recall hearing from some source or another that the ABC were / are really reluctant for on-air types to hand comedy shows over to new hosts – it sounded like they felt they were in the talent business, not the franchise business, which seems odd for a television network. But it wasn’t until Denton left the ABC that his production house got going, and the Fast Forward / Full Frontal series remains the only even remotely recent sketch series with a rotating cast. If they’d managed the host handover with Spicks and Specks properly, they wouldn’t be in this fix…