We’re all complicit in the humour of humiliation

You can’t condemn the Australian DJs who prank called the Duchess of Cambridge’s hospital if you laughed at the results.

Hoaxes, whether you like them or hate them, have existed and will continue to exist as long as there are people around to create them, fall prey to them, and derive amusement from them.

The point of a hoax is to find humour in causing an unsuspecting target to respond to something false while believing it to be true.  It's the humour of humiliation, writ large.

When the target is pompous or high-ranking it's called punching up or “satire”. When the target is of equal or lower status, it's called punching down and at the very least this should make us uncomfortable.

Listening to the genuine disbelief and palpable regret of the two Australian DJs at the centre of the recent Royal phone hoax as they try to comprehend the tragic consequences - the death of Jacintha Saldanha - it's very difficult not to feel some sympathy for them.

We feel sympathy too attempting to imagine the torment of Jacintha's family, who will now have to continue without her. No one directly involved in this will ever be able to completely move on from it. Nor would we expect them to.

The truth is that we can observe or, as I'm doing here, give our opinions, but we can’t begin to know. However, we can and should reflect, because we must take responsibility for our share in the thirst for the comedy of cruelty that has seemingly led to the death of a much-loved wife and mother.

If comedy is a hierarchy, prank calls and all hoaxes lie pretty near the bottom. Its premise is laughing at people for behaving in a way more often stemming from kindness and tolerance than anything else. Mocking people for attempting patience amid confusion seems odd as a premise, but if the butt of the joke is arrogant or pompous then it can be deemed satire. If all humour is subjective then this applies to hoax calls particularly - if you've ever been the person being laughed at you may perceive its value somewhat differently.

It's about power. The person making the call and the one in receipt of the call are at the opposite ends of a very different spectrum. One is in full possession of the facts and the other simply going about their daily life.

We the audience are complicit in the deceit and I think it's probably time for us to ask ourselves a very serious question. Where does this threshold for humiliation take us?

You may not like this type of humour, but vilifying the perpetrators is only one part of a complex jigsaw of responsibility. I think the danger lies in laughing at someone for something that they cannot help. Whether on the grounds of ethnicity or race, sexual orientation or disability or for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, we need to examine ourselves as an audience because without us there would be no mileage in the humour of humiliation.

The fact that it's humiliating someone else does not give it any justification, simply popularity. We laugh and then we blame and then we move on. Fortunately we can. My heart goes out to those who reap the whirlwind of all unforeseen consequences. We all should take our portion of the blame, but we won't.  The devastating consequences mean that we will all step away and in many cases point and threaten those who were doing our bidding.

Then like any bullying gang we simply point and run away.

Details of the Jacintha Saldanha Memorial Fund can be found here.

Australian DJs Mel Greig and Michael Christian.
Getty
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The toxic new right-wing media will outlast Trump even if he’s impeached

Fox News and a network of smaller outlets have created an alternative version of reality. That ecosystem might prove more durable than the US president. 

An early end to Donald Trump’s presidency looks more feasible than at any time in the 117 days since his inauguration.

The New York Times revealed on Tuesday that FBI director James Comey – who was fired by Trump a week ago – wrote a memo recording the President’s request he “let go” an investigation into links between Michael Flynn, Trump’s pick for national security advisor, and Russia.

Already there is talk of impeachment, not least because the crime Trump is accused of - obstructing justice - is the same one that ended Richard Nixon's presidency.

But with a Republican-controlled Congress the impeachment process would be long and fraught, and is only likely to succeed if public opinion, and particularly the opinion of the Republican voters, swings decisively against Trump.

In another era, the rolling coverage of the president's chaotic, incompetent and potentially corrupt administration might have pushed the needle far enough. But many of those Republican voters will make their decision about whether or not to stick with Trump based not on investigative reporting in the NYT or Washington Post, but based on reading a right-wing media ecosystem filled with distortions, distractions and fabrications.

That ecosystem – which spans new and (relatively) old media - will be going into overdrive to protect a president it helped elect, and who in turn has nourished it with praise and access.

On Monday, BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel took a forensic look at how a new breed of hyper-partisan right wing sites – what he calls the "Upside Down media" – tried to undermine and discredit claims that Trump disclosed sensitive security information to Russian officials.

The same tactics can already be seen just 24 hours later. Notorious conspiracist site Infowars talks of “saboteurs” and “turncoats” undermining the administration with leaks, mirroring an email from Trump’s campaign team sent late on Tuesday. Newsmax, another right-leaning sight with links to Trump, attacks the source of the story, asking in its web splash “Why did Comey wait so long?”. GatewayPundit, which published several false stories about Hillary Clinton during the election campaign, appears to have ignored the story altogether. 

As Warzel points out, these new sites work in concert with older media, in particular Rupert Murdoch’s ratings-topping cable news channel Fox News.

Fox initially underplayed the Comey memo’s significance, switching later to projecting the story as a media-led attack on Trump. At the time of publication, the Fox homepage led with a splash headlined: “THE SHOW MUST GO ON Lawmakers vow to focus on Trump agenda despite WH controversies.”

Fox acts as a source of validation for the newly established right-wing sites. Once Fox has covered a story, smaller sites can push further and faster, knowing that they aren't going too far from at least one outlet considered respectable and mainstream. If anything should make the UK value the impartiality rules, however imperfect, which govern its broadcast news, it’s Fox’s central role in enabling this toxic mix of misinformation.

These new media sites have another weapon, however. They understand and exploit the way internet platforms - in particular Facebook - are designed to maximise attention. They have found that playing on very human desires for stories that confirm our biases and trigger emotional responses is the best way to build audiences and win fans, and they have little compulsion abusing that knowledge.

This isn’t just a Trump or Fox-related phenomenon. It’s not even just a right-wing one. In both the US and the UK left-wing hyper-partisan sites with a tenuous relationship with the truth have sprung up. They have followed the same playbook, and in most cases the same advertising-based funding model, which has worked so well for the right. Emotive headlines, spun stories, outright fabrications and an insistence that “the corrupt mainstream media won’t report this” work just as well in generating clicks and shares for both ends of the political spectrum.

The main difference between the two political poles is that the right has benefited from an ideologically and temperamentally suited president, and a facilitator in Fox News. 

Of course the combined efforts of this new media and the Fox-led old may still fail. Trump’s recent transgressions appear so severe that they could break through to even his diehard supporters.

But if Trump does fall, the new right wing media ecosystem is unlikely to fall with him. 

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