Ian Burrell: Onion feeds a growing appetite for tearing apart the media


A happy consequence of the continued revelations of dirty tricks and low moral standards in modern media is a resurgent public appetite for having a laugh at the people who are paid to produce the news. Lampooned journalists will just have to suck it up as audiences – now better informed than ever as to how the news machine functions – enjoy new shows that satirise and tear apart their working methods.

First up is OnionNews Network, the television version of the long-running American satirical newspaper and website, best known for spoof headlines that parody news hyperbole such as “Drugs Win Drug War” and, alongside a picture of Bill Clinton, “New President Feels Nation’s Pain, Breasts”. The TV show, which begins on Sky Arts from 26 November, will feature the dubious talents of pouting newscaster Brooke Alvarez and introduce breaking “News Blasts” with extreme graphics and exploding sound effects. Recent ONN scoops include the discovery of backstreet “Spouse Fighting Rings”, where spectators place bets on battling couples, and the sports “exclusive” that struggling Boston Red Sox have produced “commemorative razor blades” for their suffering fans.

The latter item is delivered by the Onion’s loud-talking sports presenters with such brashness that it’s almost credible. “If you happened upon it, you are not sure if you are watching a news channel or not and that’s brilliant,” says James Hunt, the Sky Arts channel director, who thinks there is a hunger for comedy that takes the media to task. “People are probably better informed now and a lot of the big institutions that used to be the rocks of trust on which people relied have been seen for possibly what they are,” he says.

“You can’t trust your banks anymore, you can’t trust your MPs and you can’t trust all your newspapers.” Hunt says that such “smart, satirical, vaguely anarchic” comedy as ONN is territory “relinquished by other broadcasters”.

But other channels are pursuing similar ambitions. Later this month, filming will start of Hacks, a comedy treatment of the phone-hacking scandal written by Guy Jenkin, the brains behind the Nineties newsroom comedy Drop The Dead Donkey. It will be screened at Christmas. “It’s like a panto with A-levels and tells the story in a farcical fashion,” says Shane Allen, head of comedy at Channel 4. “Lots of the characters are composites of people in the real story and the lead is very much [Rupert] Murdoch. It’s legally contentious with the Leveson inquiry [into media standards] going on.”

Channel 4 sister channel More 4 screens The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, which has in the past 12 years transformed American satire, and the network once turned down an opportunity to make a British version with Stewart’s English sidekick John Oliver. It has since tried to recover that ground with 10 O’Clock Live, a news comedy starring David Mitchell, Jimmy Carr, Charlie Brooker and Lauren Laverne. Allen says a British tradition that began with the BBC’s That Was the Week That Was in the Sixties became overshadowed by the outstanding 1994 show The Day Today, written by Chris Morris.

“He set the bar so high that people thought they were going to look like a lesser version of that,” he said. But now there is a mood for fresh news satire. “There has been a sea change,” he says. “For years on C4 it was left to Rory Bremner to do the satirical news. It felt that we needed to get a younger generation’s take on the world around us.”

His namesake Kenton Allen, the former head of comedy at the BBC and now joint CEO of comedy indie Big Talk Productions, says it has been “quite challenging” for British television to replicate the success of Jon Stewart in America because of the commitment required from broadcasters. “The Daily Show is called that for a reason – it’s there every day. Jon Stewart gets paid a fortune, it has a huge team of writers and they have built up a head of steam over a number of years and there’s now a very large young audience,” he says. “If you are not a regular fixture and are trying to be topical then [audiences] go elsewhere.”

Though he praises the consistency of the “brilliant” BBC1 show Have I Got News for You, he cites Radio 4’s The News Quiz as evidence that “our satire is being done better on radio than television”.

To Kenton Allen, there is a clear difference between such “topical satire” and the “news spoof ” of the Onion, which he admires. “In the context of the US media the Onion is genius because it parodies and takes the rise out of what goes on over there.” Channel 4’s Shane Allen also thinks the “network” that styles itself “the loudest voice in news” will find an audience here. “When you do spoof news in a lacklustre way it doesn’t ring true but they don’t have recognisable actors and it’s subtle,” he says. “The Onion is really smart, clever and I think very authentic.”

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