A test of one’s commitment to free speech isn’t fighting for the speech you like but the speech you don’t like. It is inevitable that censorship encroaches from the latter to the former. Never has that maxim been tested more, though, than in the case of Friendlyjordies v the State of New South Wales.

By Sami Shah.

First they
came for Friendlyjordies…

A test of one’s commitment to free speech isn’t fighting for the speech you like but the speech you don’t like. It is inevitable that censorship encroaches from the latter to the former. Never has that maxim been tested more, though, than in the case of Friendlyjordies v the State of New South Wales. For those unfamiliar with Friendlyjordies, it’s the nom de plume of comedian Jordan Shanks-Markovina, a YouTube personality who recently shared with his thousands upon thousands of followers a series of videos about alleged corruption in the NSW government. Outraged by the lack of mainstream coverage of that corruption, those followers then yelled at journalists to be more like Friendlyjordies, even though his entire content is based around original journalism conducted by those outlets and those journalists.

When he isn’t doing that, Shanks-Markovina and his producer take turns dressing up as the video game character Luigi and chasing after the NSW deputy premier, John Barilaro. None of this should be considered particularly bold or creative in terms of satire or journalism, and it would take a particularly thin-skinned politician to be offended enough to involve the police. John Barilaro is such a politician.

A few days ago Shanks-Markovina’s producer, Kristo Langker, was arrested by officers from a department within the NSW Police Force that was originally created to deal with terrorism. Apparently, the war on terror has now expanded its remit to include bad cosplay. Langker has been charged with stalking, a crime the NSW Police Force takes very seriously, unless it’s committed by one of their own officers.

Langker’s lawyer has pointed out that his client’s unique bail conditions prohibit Langker from possessing “an image or caricature of the deputy premier” or from making “comments upon the appearance or behaviour of the deputy premier”. It’s an astounding act of censorship, likely to be ignored by the free speech warriors at News Corp and the Institute of Public Affairs, as it doesn’t involve critical race theory or a statue.

As a satirist, this columnist is a tad perturbed by news that the counterterrorism squad was rounding up satirists. Finding strength in numbers, I reached out to other prominent satirists and asked them whether this will affect their approach to satire.

The Chaser, who are pioneers in the field of dressing up and pestering politicians, issued a statement:

“Here at The Chaser, we take the right to dress up in a silly costume and badger politicians very seriously. It’s been a long time since any of us studied law, but we’re pretty sure the ‘Right to Dress Up in a Silly Costume and Hassle Politicians’ is in the Australian Constitution, just below the bit about being allowed to torture four-year-old brown kids. Actually, thinking about it, locking up satirists other than The Chaser could be quite good for our business. In fact, in that spirit, we applaud the NSW Government for locking up producers of topical comedy content. We call on John Barilaro to get the police to lock up all other YouTube comedians and social media satirists in this state, and do a dodgy deal with The Chaser and appoint us as the sole provider of satirical content in NSW. In return, we will be offering Mr Barilaro a position on our board (but only after he steps down from parliament – it’ll all be completely above board and completely deniable. We know how these things work.) And we promise that if we ever get questioned in ICAC about the deal, we’ll make sure our mobile phone with all the evidence on it gets run over by a tractor (wink, wink).”

Dan Ilic, creator of the weekly podcast A Rational Fear, said: “John Barilaro’s attack on satire has had a chilling effect on my work – I’m going to stop all the jokes about the government and focus back on the quality of airline food – unless of course the airline caterers are owned by a relative of John Barilaro’s.”

The former presenter of former ABC satire show Tonightly, Tom Ballard, said he wouldn’t be deterred. “I will continue to fearlessly use my platform and my satire to inform the Australian public about the great job that conservative governments across the country are doing right now. Also, cops are tops!”

Victoria Zerbst of Freudian Nip, the satirical team creating hilarious content for SBS, said: “Stalking and intimidation is not usually part of my satirical practice. I’m a keyboard warrior and I’m scared of all people.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by The Weekly’s Charlie Pickering, who said: “While the arrest sets a very disturbing precedent, it won’t change my approach to satire. Principally because I will never be scared to speak truth to power … from a safe distance behind my desk.”

Shaun Micallef didn’t respond to a request for a comment, which means he was either busy and didn’t see my tweet asking him for one or he’s currently being tortured in a prison cell in NSW. These days, it’s hard to tell which is more likely.

Compassionate misses

The Murugappans are finally off Christmas Island. All it took was more than three years of needless detention, at a cost of several million dollars, while the children’s teeth rotted, the parents developed depression, and four-year-old Tharnicaa ended up with a blood infection caused by untreated pneumonia.

Australia is comfortable with the mistreatment of refugees if they’re out of sight, and this commitment to denial was tested by a moving photograph of the little girl crying as she was taken to Perth for emergency treatment. Being shamed on the international stage for this unnecessary sadism finally moved the government to action, and in a press release Immigration Minister Alex Hawke announced the family’s relocation to community detention in Perth. Hawke refuses to use the family’s name, referring to them as “the Sri Lankan family”, which definitely isn’t a display of sociopathic dehumanising behaviour at all.

The family, which now has to live in Perth without being allowed to work or having access to Centrelink, is also not allowed to travel to Biloela, where so many of their friends and supporters are. This is seen by supporters of the government’s policies as essential in sending a message to people smugglers. Apparently, smugglers can convince refugees to risk their lives climbing into boats, to face eternity on Manus Island or Nauru, or end up in a detention centre where their children will suffer agonising mental and physical neglect and abuse, but not to live in Perth.

Joining the Q of crazy mates

After much fanfare and controversy, the ABC aired its Four Corners episode about the prime minister’s close friendship with Tim Stewart, a QAnon follower. It’s raised questions about influence and access, and possibly even national security issues. But it’s also inadvertently made Scott Morrison more relatable. Who doesn’t have a batshit crazy friend you’re stuck with because you’ve known each other for years? Mine is an economist and doting father of two who believes Covid-19 was created by aliens to soften us up for the impending invasion.

The difference, of course, is that through me all my friend has access to is the odd satirical column. Stewart alleges he has access to the prime minister. If nothing else this does display an admirable trait of loyalty in Morrison, who is willing to stand by his friend despite how embarrassing he must be at dinners. It’s the kind of respect for the bonds of friendship that explains the endemic cronyism in his government.

Indeed, the true friend here isn’t Scott Morrison, but Tim Stewart, who has to justify his friendship with a man who believes the world can be seen in simplistic terms of good and evil, thinks miracles are real, that climate change is a part of God’s plan, that if you’re rich it’s because God wants you to be rich, the same as he wants poor people to be poor. In comparison, Tim seems quite rational. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 19, 2021 as "Gadfly: First they came for Friendlyjordies…".

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Sami Shah is a multi-award-winning comedian, writer and journalist.

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