The horrific mass shooting at French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, offers an extreme example of how satire can become a target for those who find it insulting or offensive.
In whatever form it has been produced, satirical works have created their fair share of controversy. In some countries, the rights given to satirical publications are sometimes even broader than those for standard journals or newspapers, due to constitutional protections. In Britain during the 1970s, Monty Python’s film The Life of Brian, a satirical portrayal of the life of Jesus, was strongly attacked by religious groups as a satirical work. In 2006, angry protests broke out around the world after a Danish newspaper published controversial satirical cartoons of the prophet Mohammed, offending many Muslims.
Satire has a long history of mocking or criticizing aspects of society, from politics to religion, general human behavior and sex. There are works of satire going back to the Greek and Roman times, but the genre first began to reach a broader audience in the modern world during the 18th century. Famous figures during the enlightenment produced satirical works, such as Voltaire, and in Britain, figures like Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift became renowned satirists. The word Swiftian is still used as an adjective to describe satire that follows his style. Satirical magazines began to spread in the 19th century in Europe and North America. The following is a list of ten of the most controversial satirical magazines.
Founded in 1841, Punch was one of the longest-running satirical magazines when it closed down in 2002. In its 160 years of existence, it became synonymous with publishing cartoons and articles that poked fun at authority, including governments, national institutions and public opinion. In its early years, at a time when Europe was swept by evolutionary struggles in the late 1840s, it published some radical material in support of the Chartist movement in England, but over the years, it changed with the times. It published many leading cartoonists and authors, including John Betjeman, Thomas Hood, George du Maurier, and William Makepeace Thackeray. In its last few decades, Punch was never able to regain the popularity it had enjoyed during the Victorian era. It was revived briefly in the late 1990s, but closed for good in 2002.
The Berlin weekly was founded in the midst of the 1848 revolution and continued publication for over 90 years. It emerged at a time of a huge expansion of satirical publications, with 35 others launched in early 1848. But it was the only one to survive the immediate aftermath of the revolution. A feature of the magazine was its use of local dialects and themes to discuss political developments. Although it had its radical moments in its early years, criticizing Otto von Bismarck, the founder of the German state, it increasingly toned down its criticism. By the 1920s, the magazine was promoting nationalist politics and even supported the policies of Adolf Hitler, as he rose to power in the early 1930s.
The Swiss satirical paper is the oldest satire magazine in the world that has been continuously published. It was founded in 1875, but enjoyed its best period prior to and during World War II. From the early 1930s onwards, it openly attacked the policies of the Nazis in Germany, becoming a rallying point for oppositional sentiment in Switzerland. Hitler banned the weekly from the German Reich when he took power in 1933. Recently, while it has satirized religion including Islam, it refused to publish caricatures of Mohammed when other magazines like Charlie Hebdo did in 2012, with its chief editor telling the Swiss press that breaching such taboos was not what satire was about from Nebelspalter’s point of view.
7) Harvard Lampoon
Inspired by Punch, the Lampoon was founded by students at Harvard University, in 1876, and was initially characterized by mild humor and relatively harmless jokes. But by the early part of the 20th century, a new direction was begun, particularly through the influence of the Communist journalist John Reed, who refocused the paper in the direction of a more biting and critical social commentary. It also began its tradition of publishing fake versions of national publications, which made it famous among a broader audience. In 1935, a mock edition of Esquire that it produced was banned by the authorities.
From its founding in Munich in 1896, Simplicissimus was embroiled in controversy. It tackled the establishment, church, military and public officials, and in Germany in the late 19th century, this meant incurring the wrath of the press censors. In 1898, it published its so-called Palestine edition, which contained a poem attacking Kaiser Wilhelm’s trip to Palestine. The issue was confiscated and two of the magazine’s staff were jailed for insulting the monarch. A third fled Germany for five years to avoid detention. After World War I, the paper also portrayed the disarmament of Germany as a national humiliation and launched particularly strong criticism against France.
5) Le Canard Enchainé
The French satirical weekly first appeared in 1915, during World War I, at a time when the military censor was forcing other papers to close. It established a reputation as a strong critic of political parties, the church and the wealthy. The fear of the establishment for Le Canard was revealed in 1973, when members of the French domestic intelligence agency were caught disguised as plumbers attempting to install surveillance cameras in the magazine’s offices. The resulting outcry forced the interior minister to resign from the government. Six years later, the paper was accused of bearing moral responsibility for the death of Robert Boulin, a prominent politician who committed suicide shortly after Le Canard had published a series of articles suggesting that he was involved in corrupt real estate dealings.
The Soviet Union’s leading political satire magazine was founded in the immediate aftermath of the Russian Revolution, in 1922. Its main targets for scorn and ridicule was the capitalist west, which was portrayed as war-mongering. The revolution encouraged the development of many similar papers, but after Stalin consolidated power, his control tightened and many died out. Krokodil continued but became less successful. When Stalin launched an anti-Jewish purge shortly before his death, Krokodil published anti-semitic articles in the early 1950s.
3) Private Eye
Printed in London since the early 1960s, Private Eye has triggered public outcries on a wide range of issues, from the death of Princess Diana, to the September 11th attacks. Its issue after the death of Diana contained a cover story headlined “Media to blame” with a picture of thousands of people at Buckingham Palace. And after the London bombings, which killed over 50 people, in July 2005, it published a spoof conversation between then Prime Minister Tony Blair, and mayor of London Ken Livingston, in which the mayor suggested that they should invite the mastermind of the bombing round for tea. This had been a reference to Blair’s meeting with a controversial Islamic scholar.
2) Charlie Hebdo
The name Charlie Hebdo actually came about due to a ban. Its founders published a paper that fell foul of the censor, when it spoofed a story about a nightclub tragedy in which over 140 people died to comment on the death of Charles de Gaulle. To avoid having to suspend publication, Charlie Hebdo was chosen. Since then, it has built up a reputation for harshly criticising all religion, although Muslims have become a growing target in recent years. An example of this came on November 3rd, 2011, when it published an issue in which the magazine title was altered to make a reference to sharia law and the guest editor was proclaimed to be Mohammed. The release of this issue coincided with a firebomb attack on its offices in Paris.
Just to be confusing, there are two magazines published in Canada by the name of Frank, one in Ottawa and another in Halifax. The Ottawa version was founded in 1989 and has had its fair share of controversy ever since, apart from a break in publication between 2008 and 2013. In 1991, then Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, declared that he would take a gun to the magazine after it wrote an article urging youth members of the Conservative Party to “deflower” his daughter. The magazine has recently published caricatures of the prophet Mohammed, which according to its editor Michael Bate, has resulted in Frank receiving threats of violence.