An eye to offensiveness : the discourse of offence and censure in Private Eye
This thesis is an empirical examination of the articulation of comic offence and the practices of comic censure as conducted in media discourse. Making complaints about comic discourse is a risky endeavour. The joker can retort that it was `just a joke' or can charge the complainer with lacking a sense of humour and libels can fail and be very costly. The main focus is on the discursive strategies and practices used when claiming that comedy has caused offence. This is an under-researched area in humour studies. The ambivalence involved in negotiations between ethical and comic discourse is a central tenet of the thesis. Two main avenuesf or expressing comic offence are used in the thesis: letters of complaint written to the editor of comic discourse and charges of offensive comedy made through the law of defamation. The thesis adopts an eclectic approach to data collection and analysis. The research draws on different data sources: letters pages and readers' letters printed in the satirical magazine Private Eye, newspaper articles reporting on libel cases brought against Private Eye and interviews with editors, journalists, cartoonists and libel lawyers working for Private Eye. Content analytic techniques are used when analysing the readers' letters to provide a clear overview of the general pattern of complaint involved and the common consequences of such complaint. Composition analysis is used to assess how the editor of Private Eye constructs the letters page. Here I explore the strategies employed by the editor when defendingc criticisms that offence has been causeda nd assessh ow the editor discursively treats the offended reader. To examine in closer detail the characteristic ways in which reader's structure their expression of grievance, I then employ more qualitative modes of analysis: linguistic discourse analysis and symbolic cultural analysis. Attention then shifts to the second main avenue for expressing comic offence: the law of defamation. I conduct a quantitative content analysis of Private Eye's libel litigation history to provide an overview of the types of individual who utilise the law of defamation and the bases on which reputations are damaged. Textual analysis is used to assessh ow newspapersre port libel casesb rought against Private Eye in order to explore the press' role in the debate of comic offence and comic censure. In my conclusion I discuss what the thesis suggests about the ethical considerations of humour and comedy and I highlight the importance of the thesis for humour studies. The thesis finishes with some recommendations for future research.