No satire or ridicule please – this is parliament

I had not previously been aware that the rules of parliamentary broadcasting preclude “satire and ridicule”. Annabel Crabb raises the issue at the ABC, and reports that many politicians themselves are unaware of this.

First, prohibiting ridicule does seem a little redundant. One may well decree that there shalt be no ridicule, but it’s meaningless when the regular vacuum of sanity and cool-headedness in the chamber simply pulls in ridicule from all angles, irrespective of intent. An analogy might involve trying to bail water out of a ship that is not merely full of holes, but simply lacks a hull altogether. The attempt to prohibit ridicule is itself just a little ridiculous.

Satire, meanwhile, might actually make Question Time watchable at some level, without immediate risk of brain malfunction (see my previous Venn diagram). The provision against satire reminded me, of course, of the royal wedding, in which ABC2 and The Chaser were prevented from making the whole viewing experience worthwhile. More seriously, satire is essential for a healthy democracy. It is one of the most important forms of free speech, because, unlike political slogans, rhetoric and the like, it works with and gives force to nuance. It tears down idiocy mercilessly and reveals inconsistencies in public discourse that might otherwise be blunted by conventional narratives and sensibilities.

A satirical take on Question Time would not just be more entertaining than our current straight broadcasts, but ultimately even more important. It is important that we laugh at our leaders’ attempts at manipulating public opinion, because that’s our best shield against it.

However, there are conceivable technological workarounds for this sort of thing. A satirical broadcast could, in principle, be split into the original footage and some set of superimposed or overlaid video, audio and programmatic instructions for automatically combining them. These elements, when combined, could produce a seamless work of satire. However, imagine further that the actual combining is done by a piece of software on the viewer’s television, computer, etc., and that up until that point they are separate data streams, provided even by separate organisations.

Organisation A provides the original, unadulterated footage, while organisation B provides the satirical overlay. Organisation A cannot be held responsible because it has nothing to do with the satire. Organisation B cannot be held responsible because it isn’t broadcasting the footage. (None of this is especially novel, I suspect, though I haven’t really investigated.)

Maybe I’m missing some legal subtlety here. Maybe there’s still some arcane legal case against organisation B – I don’t know – but if the technological means fell into place (and it’s really just a matter of writing the software), I don’t immediately see how any legal avenue could plausibly stop it.

Question time psychosis

I read (via the ABC) that our new Greens MP Adam Bandt believes that the hallowed institution of Question Time is in danger of becoming a farce:

There is a real risk that we are about to lose one of the key opportunities that Parliament has to hold the executive accountable and to ask ministers to think on their feet.

What really is the fulcrum of Parliament, something the nation tunes in to every day and an opportunity to put ministers on the spot, runs the risk of descending into a scripted farce.

At the moment we have the length of Question Time being determined by what time Play School comes on television.

I can understand and sympathise with Bandt, but this strikes me as being a little naïve. Question Time has almost never been anything but a farce.

Each question from a Government MP is a blank cheque for the relevant minister to burble on about how great they are. Each question from the Opposition is just a rhetorical salvo designed to damage the government’s credibility. It’s been like that since the dawn of time, and our adversarial, two-party system almost guarantees it will stay that way. Independent MPs – including, presumably, Mr Bandt himself – are the only ones even remotely likely to use Question Time as a means of acquiring information and so informing the public. However, they get very few opportunities to do so, and such cool-headed rational discourse appears not to rate very highly in media coverage.

So, when Tony Abbott decides to disrupt Question Time with spurious censure motions over Gillard’s carbon tax, who really cares? Sure, he’s being a supercilious git, but it’s not as if he’s disrupting anything important. I shall elaborate by way of the following diagram:

If we can make Question Time not an unmitigated farce (or we can get rid of people likely to care about democracy), then we can worry about Abbott’s choreography.