The infamous video of Greece’s Finance minister Yanis Varoufakis ‘flipping his middle finger’ to Germany and which caused uproar in German media may or may not have been faked by a German satirical TV show.
The truth will come out eventually. Or not.
The only thing clear now is that Jan Böhmermann and his satirical show Neo Magazin Royale have performed as media watchdog.
Satire is defined, after all, as “trenchant wit, irony, or sarcasm used to expose and discredit vice or folly.” And on Wednesday, Neo Magazin Royale turned its attention toward German media, including the public TV channel ARD, a competitor of ZDF, to expose its flaws.
A sign of things to come, Böhmermann starts with a warning: “Dear Günther Jauch, dear ARD, dear editorial department of Bild, please take a deep breath. Maybe you should also take a seat. Make yourself comfortable now. You might have to be very, very strong now.”
The German tabloid Bild is mentioned as well because after Varoufakis appears on ARD and said the video was “doctored”, the tabloid called him a “Lügner”, a liar, with wonders of layout design creativity.
Böhmermann and his team are not the first one to use satire for media criticism. Collectively, the Media is one of the favorite targets of satirical shows.
In the United States, a year-long study conducted throughout 2007 by the Pew Research Center on Journalism and Media of the The Daily Show with Jon Stewart found that the press was a significant target of the show’s jokes.
“In all, 8% of the time was made up of segments about the press and news media. That is more than double the amount of coverage of media in the mainstream press overall during the same period.” Those segments serve to this day to criticise the malpractices and unethical behavior of other media and their journalists, among which CNN and Fox News are favoured targets.
Stewart, along with the (recently retired) Stephen Colbert, host of Colbert Report, according to ethics scholars Sandra Borden and Chad Tew in a 2007 research article are: “idealists who hold or appear to identify with traditional journalist moral and commitments and democratic values (…) they routinely challenge cable news journalists for the role-appropriateness of their performance.”
Calling the media's role into question
The question of role-appropriateness is a central one in both the Neo Magazin Royale show and in the (most likely tongue in cheek) video statement Böhmermann released on Thurdsay morning.
In his show, Böhmermann introduces a segment entitled “Neo Magazin TV-Aid”, the intro of which ridicules German TV show hosts as ‘persons-in-need’, saying “we are indeed a very small program but nevertheless we like to help big successful programs too”. It then reminds the viewers that the ARD talk show Yanis Varoufakis appeared on gathered 5.2 million viewers and a 18,4% market share.
However, Böhmermann and his colleagues call the role of ARD TV host Günther Jauch and the Bild newspaper into question once they reveal the fake. “Well, when it’s on Günther Jauch, it must be true. At least that’s what I have thought to this day,” says the actor who ‘plays the role’ of Varoufakis’ arm. A little later in the video Böhmermann also jokes that Jauch makes in one year as much cash as the tax office in Athens, or even “more money than whole Greece,” a jab at both the Greeks’ reputation as tax evaders and at the income of the star host of the licence fee-funded ARD.
Bild is also ridiculed with footage of Bild.de Creative Director of Video, Robert King, stating that the video would be impossible to fake unless it were done in a studio, being followed by footage of the Neo Magazin Royale team in a studio, apparently shooting the fake sequence.
In the video statement on Thursday morning, Böhmermann adds an extra layer of confusion to the situation and hints that, to him, the joke goes on. He accuses anyone who says they ‘faked the fake’ of being a “liar”, deliberately emphasizing the word, the same used by Bild. In addition, he deadpans the following statement:
This obvious joke on the relevance of Varoufakis’ gesture echoes the work of French media scholars Annie Collovald and Erik Neveu in their 1999 analysis of French satirical TV puppets show Les Guignols.
The authors identified that this puppet show, created in 1988, portrays “political journalists in the media [as] the deferential foils of political leaders, prisoners of esoteric debates or of a political realm detached from the ordinary problems of citizens.” It is the very same sentiment in Böhmermann’s statement about the “essential journalistic debate” around the gesture.
A story like #Varoufake teaches us, as news consumers, to be a little more careful of what we read or watch, and to expect a little more from our media. Lest the joke be on us