Comedy, news, facts and political debate

The king of comedy - image from topic for this blog, but Armando Iannucci wrote an article in the Guardian back in October with his take on the state of political debate and why comedy is becoming the main source of news for younger people

…politicians have stopped speaking to us properly, the media has stopped examining their actions in anything like a forensic way, and broadcast culture has become so watered down, so scared of fact, that people are less inclined to turn to anything other than entertainment for information,,1924846,00.html

To some extent, alternatives have arisen to occupy the niche abandoned by the mainstream media. For instance, The Register has taken it upon itself to say sensible things about the various ‘terrorist’ and ‘security’ scares that are coming and going with such frequency.

A recent example is Bombless dirty bomber pleads guilty, press spreads the fallout:

…the prosecution accepted that there was no evidence that [Dhiran Barot] had obtained money to finance the plot, or that he had acquired bomb-making material, radioactive substances, limos or gas cylinders. Nor does there appear to be any indication that he knew where to source radioactive materials, how to build a dirty bomb, or how to set off sufficient gas cylinders in an underground car park to make a skyscraper collapse.

yet was reported as a genuine security threat in the mainstream media (plenty of links in the story). For further examples, see also:

Ianucci goes on to say:

Given there is no absolute meaning, no hard, unquestionable kernel of truth at the centre of what we see, how can we take anything seriously ever again? Of course, we do, though, by turning to those who do offer narratives, even if they are fictional ones. Because they are better than no narrative at all. That’s why I think comedy, and indeed any act of imagination, matters – and matters fundamentally. But this is not the sort of thing it should have been left to a comedian to say.

Blogs can also be thought of as part of the rising of alternatives to traditional news. And they can be pretty fact-free zones, generally without the comedy. Though they certainly can offer a narrative…

One of my colleagues suggested that it could be that the ‘offering of narrative’ – or at least authorship – that makes blogs so much more successful than forums as a medium of political discussion. “If you (as a would-be participant) can’t follow a narrative – and in most forums I don’t think you can – where do you get started?”

This is not a technical issue: the technology isn’t that different from forums – it’s be easy enough to rig up a ‘blog’ where anyone can post and anyone can comment, so I guess the difference between a blog and a forum is that a blog has an authorial (?) voice?

Supporting this point, in an recent item on, Robin Hamman quotes research by the University of Missouri-Columbia that:

…researchers created two versions of a mock Web site, one that indicated it was moderated while the other did not. The researchers showed student-subjects one of the two sites and then surveyed them, asking whether they intended to participate in the site. Those who saw the seemingly moderated site appeared more likely to say they would interact than those who viewed the apparently unmoderated one.

He suggests that

…what the participants in the study really meant was that they prefer online discussions that are editorially led, continue to be relevant to the topic at hand and where the presence of an on-site discussion host helps keep it that way

He draws a distinction between moderation (a negative, policing role) and hosting (a positive supporting presence).

Maybe the news media have lost the courage to be a host to the political dialogue and alternatives are evolving?

About Peter Cruickshank

Lecturer in the School of Computing and a member of the Centre for Social Informatics at Edinburgh Napier University, Scotland. Interested in information systems, learning, politics, society, security and where they intersect. My attempts at rounding out my character include food, cinema, running, history and, together with my lovely wife, bringing up a cat and a couple of kids.
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