Distinguishing between satire and dead serious news has become a challenge, hasn’t it? But there is a silver lining, too: satirical news portal Bis-Serjetà is the ‘jester that speaks truth to the king’.
by Raisa Galea
Collage by Isles of the Left
If the studies claiming that laughter helps us live longer are correct, then we are indebted to the satirical news portal Bis-Serjeta, Malta’s own The Onion, for boosting our longevity. The portal is not alone in its endeavour to improve public health: The Civil Protection Department (CPD) has recently inspired a few giggles, too.
It appears that the CPD mistook satire for a malicious attempt at ‘fake news’ and reported the hilarious post, which pretended to quote its director, to the Cyber Crime Unit. The CPD’s reaction instantaneously made news: the story was reported by a few major national media platforms and went viral. What started as a joke ended up as a serious piece of news.
This incident left readers wondering about the reasons for such a harsh response. Some put the blame on the absent sense of humour, others suspected an attack on the freedom of expression. Most amusing, however, is that mistaking a satirical article for a ‘true story’ was not a one-off incident.
A couple of days ago, I received a message from a fellow environmentalist who exasperatingly commented on another article by Bis-Serjetà—‘Only God can create parks, insists Muscat’. ‘Did you see this?!’, he typed, referring to a sentence supposedly attributed to the Prime Minister: ‘[…] Buskett is actually man-made, and […] the PA have approved a 7-star hotel on the site of it. Maybe just stay at home.’ My acquaintance seemed genuinely dismayed by the ‘news’ of the approved development, fuming that “not even Buskett is sacred!”
I choked on my tea, but failed to laugh. Who can blame him?
With a steady supply of dead serious news about ODZ land being converted into petrol stations and public land in prime locations handed out for mega developments, clearing off Buskett for an exuberant hotel does sound believable (even if there is no such hotel rating as 7-star). Plus, Joseph Muscat is renowned for his provocative animated statements, and, admittedly, did this quote sound as something he could have uttered.
Later on the same day, I learnt that a similar exchange occurred in a certain political party’s social media group. In a similar fashion, a member of the political circle mistook a mock quote for an authentic one.
What do these incidents tell us? Few things.
Bis-Serjetà medicates our deep-seated anxieties caused by reading day-to-day national and international news.
Firstly the satirical portal brilliantly mimics the actual headlines: despite its glaring satirical outline, the publication picks up titles and topics that are on many lips. Indeed, the sudden reappearance of Franco Debono—and the Egrant saga—in the media headlines must have felt like a hazard to more than a few people. In light of Adrian Delia’s waning influence, Franco Debono’s bold PR move sends a warning to both sides of the partisan divide.
The portal resonates so much with the audience for another reason: Bis-Serjetà medicates our deep-seated anxieties caused by reading day-to-day national and international news. A glimpse at a title like ‘Sea reclamation would be better for Malta, new study shows’ might send a few intense chills down the spine, followed by an equally intense relief upon learning that the news is—thank havens!—a joke.
I bet, plenty of readers wish that every dead serious bizarre headline they come across on a daily basis were a piece of good satire. When ‘real’ news hurt, would it not be splendid to simply laugh at their lion share?
After Brexit, Trump, Italian general elections, and high-profile corruption scandals on our shores, nothing seems too absurd to be unbelievable. It is hard to tell which is more true: whether satire appears so authentic because the ‘real’ news often sound as a bad joke, or maybe we secretly hope to discover that ‘real’ baffling news were only a joke.
In a random order, below are a few quotes from Bis-Serjetà side by side with authentic excerpts from mainstream media. Can you spot satire? In case you have doubt, the answers are at bottom of the page.
“Social housing is not for life”, says Joseph Muscat while giving public land to private companies in perpetuity.”
“Keeping windows shut” during the construction of a Sliema tower to avoid having to listen to the noise from a new phase of intensive development is “unreasonable”, the Environment Resources Authority said.”
“Corinthia boss Alfred Pisani defends his project: ‘you must always accept progress’.”
“An excavator has descended from the sky in Gżira and proclaimed itself as Malta’s new God.”
“Crane sends bricks hurtling down, destroys roof of Gżira shop. ‘It was like an earthquake’ – Second report of roof collapse in a week.”
“Briefly addressing the Labour Party’s Annual General Conference, which this evening focused on rent, the Prime Minister said he did not believe that everyone had a divine right to be hosted in social housing.”
“Small and medium enterprises have shot down an EU directive through which men will benefit from 10 days of paternity leave while employers said they will not fork out a cent.”
“There are those who want the Government to somehow create green spaces out of thin air for people who live in over-built places like Sliema,” Muscat told the crowd of Labour supporters.”
“Speaking during a brief telephone interview on the Labour Party’s ONE radio, Dr Muscat said it would be the easiest thing to play the part of the “Christmas saint” and allow the group of migrants to disembark on the island […].”
“If a robot can visibly demonstrate a knowledge of its rights and responsibilities of being a citizen, then there [sic] us no reason it shouldn’t be one.”
Distinguishing between satire and dead serious news has become a challenge, hasn’t it? If your score is 10 out of 10, congratulations! Not only are you up to date with Maltese current affairs, but you also succeed to retain intellectual sobriety, which is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain.
Ironically, Bis-Serjetà lives up to its self-description. It is indeed “the only website in Malta that reports the news in a serious, accurate way.” Reflected in satire’s crooked mirror, the dystopian headlines, so imminent to our status quo, appear simultaneously more bearable and more pointed. By relieving our anxiety with a few good laughs, the satirical news portal encourages us to reflect on the troubled social and political landscape from a much needed civic perspective. In other words, Bis-Serjetà is the very ‘jester that speaks truth to the king’.