Zardari should learn from British politics

Dropping missiles from unmanned aircraft has proven much simpler

David Cameron has made clear that he will look around the world for new political ideas and must be tempted by an initiative being trialled in Pakistan. If President Zardari's attempt to ban the dissemination of jokes about him – through a new cyber crimes act, targeting blog comedy, text jests and email facetiousness – were to be introduced in the UK, Channel 4 could be prevented from screening a film, revealed this week, that will recreate the events leading up to a notorious photo of Bullingdon Club members including Cameron and Boris Johnson.

This film continues a recent British tradition of attacking politicians early in their careers. Once, a leader would have had to form at least one administration before meriting a feature-length TV demolition.

Although being spread through new technology, the kind of jokes that Zardari objects to have an older history: one of them – that the great leader has asked for his face to go on a stamp but citizens aren’t sure which side to spit on—was applied, for example, to Richard Nixon. Curiously, the British figure most vulnerable to the gag—Elizabeth II—has avoided it, even among republicans. That particular line of attack has a limited shelf-life—not because of a rise in political competence but the spread of self-adhesive stamps —but the leader of Pakistan is surely doomed in his attempt to introduce a gagging order on gags and, anyway, he has perhaps over-estimated their power. Objectively, it is difficult to argue that political satire has had much direct effect on history. Richard Nixon, though seared by comedians throughout his career, was brought down by journalism rather than jokes.

All political satirists must eventually reflect on this strike rate: Ian Hislop has argued persuasively that political humour is not useless simply because it fails to achieve immediate regime-change: he believes that there is a moral imperative at least to have tried. And there is also, clearly, a greatly cheering and cathartic effect for those members of the population who didn't vote for the leader in question. A recent book anthologising jokes told in eastern Europe during the cold war touchingly showed the way in which humour can be a democratic immune system, keeping the dissident spirit alive. Also—as the president of Pakistan’s leaden intervention has proved—there is considerable comfort in knowing that the jokes have hit home.

The most revealing aspect of Zardari’s crackdown is that it targets the newer media. This reflects a feeling among politicians that, for the present generation of leaders, the tactics of character assassination have escalated. In fact, the gags are simply more visible: what was once spoken on street corners now leaves a cyber-trail, which Zardari has foolishly chased. But new technologies will usually defeat censorship. By taking offence at jests, President Zardari has made himself a laughing stock. A man who tried to weaken political humour has demonstrated its strength. Skilled politicians know that the smart move is to join in the jokes, no matter how much they sting. Team Cameron, if it is sensible, will already be working on some wry, self-deprecating quip for their reluctant film star on the night of the Bullingdon transmission

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