A few months ago, I noticed a picture of a little girl pasted onto the wall between the elevators at a small regional airport in Germany. The girl was Madeleine McCann, who was apparently abducted from a Portuguese resort. Ever since that time, I’ve seen her face plastered all over the front pages, even here in Germany. News stories usually report the latest speculations of the hapless Portuguese police, who seem to ricochet comically from theory to theory. The story has it all — an adorable child in danger, articulate, good-looking, middle class, media-savvy parents, lots of contradictory clues. Plus, it happened in England, home to the most ravenous yellow press in the advanced West.
Titanic Magazine sensed an opportunity for satire. Claiming it had discovered secret plans by a discount store to exploit the case, Titanic published a two-page spread in which Maddie’s picture — now one of the most recognizable images of this young century — is slapped on various consumer products. Someone has apparently shown the Titanic satire it to the missing girl’s parents. Their lawyer pronounced (G) them "deeply offended," and is apparently reviewing the family’s legal options.
Martin Sonneborn, writer for Titanic, gave an interview (G) to the Sueddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) about the dust-up. After making the obvious point that the target of the satire was not the parents but the media frenzy, Sonneborn addressed the possibility of a lawsuit:
SZ: Is there another lawsuit coming down the pike for you?
Sonneborn: We basically encourage anybody to sue us. Helmut Markwort, Benjamin von Stuckrad-Barre, and the Social Democratic Party can sing you a song about that. Although in the end, the results are usually negative. Björn Engholm ripped us a good one a few years ago, we had to transfer 40,000 marks to his account. Fortunately, we’re able to wrap up other cases with small sums. Not even the Social Democratic Party got any money, although we put [party chairman] Kurt Beck as Bruno the [Problem] Bear on the front cover with the title "Blow the beast away!"
SZ: But you were forbidden from selling that issue.
Sonneborn: No, we just couldn’t deliver extra copies.
SZ: Do you now think there will be big diplomatic problems between Germany and the UK?
Sonneborn: No, but it would be wonderful if that happened. In any case, we’ll certainly be happy to do our part.
A fine post on the affair by Spiegelfechter reports that Sonneborn told the Stern magazine: "I would go so far as to call it a declaration of war on England."
As a loyal Titanic subscriber, I can only register my satisfaction. Titanic is the funniest magazine in Germany by kilo-parsecs, because it’s fearless. Perfectly, immaculately fearless. You never know whether the next page will make you vomit, cringe, laugh out loud, or glow with satisfaction at seeing some pompous ass bared and whipped. Or all four simultaneously. Any politician, organization, minority group, deity, or consumer product is fair game. The more ridiculous and self-important, the fairer. Germany, which is stuffed with pompous twits (and lickspittles only too happy to flatter them), is a "target-rich environment." And, of course, Titanic routinely goes after itself with just as much gusto. The transcripts of chaotic, drink-sodden "editorial meetings" and the ecstatic raptures when Titanic wins some obscure media prize (and then promptly auctions it off (G)) are often the best pieces in the magazine.
And if some recipient of Titanic‘s satirical wrath sues them, so be it. Under German press law, the target of an unflattering satire can sue its writers for "insult" and win, even if the piece was clearly a satire. I’m going to be a bad [i.e., judgmental] foreigner and say that I think this is not the best approach. Satire is crucial to free speech, because it’s the best — and perhaps the only — way to argue that some person or idea is getting much more respect than it’s entitled to. Now, don’t get me wrong. Germany has a robust and vigorous press, and German free-speech law does respect satire. However, as in this Federal Constitutional Court decision (G) about a horribly rude Titanic campaign against a paraplegic soldier shows, judges get into the business of deciding what the limits of satire are, or what is "appropriate" and "inappropriate." Titanic says satire must roam free, like the noble lioness, and pick its targets and means of attack by itself. Satire that is afraid of going too far or offending someone is useless and dull.
The problem, as I see it, is that judges are not very good at deciding when satire has "gone too far." This is a question of taste, much like the question whether a painting is a masterpiece. It should be decided by society at large. The American approach recognizes judges’ limitations. The legal test they use is basically this: as long as a reasonable reader would understand that writer’s intention was not to convey facts, satirists can do as they please, including printing a full-page ad parody in which Jerry Falwell talks about incest in an outhouse. In plain English, if nobody would actually think the things said about you in the satire are true, you can’t win the lawsuit. The question of whether somebody would likely believe the reported facts is the kind of ordinary legal question judges are good at answering, unlike the question when satire crosses the line into illegal "insult."
This means that, in the U.S., you have no formal judicial remedy if someone decides to publish a mean and insulting commentary about you, but doesn’t say anything provably false. Does this mean Americans don’t respect the right to dignity and protection from vicious insults, as some German commentators argue? Not really — it means that American judges think that informal social sanctions are a better way to protect these values than formal court proceedings. Civil society will police the boundaries of civil discourse. As you can see by the much milder tone of American newspapers and the scandal that erupts whenever a public figure is accused of racism, there’s something to be said for this approach.
Call me ethnocentric, but I think that solution is better than letting judges interfere.