Will Comrade Cutie see the funny side



22:36 GMT, 28 November 2012

The initials GSOH, standing for Good Sense Of Humour, are now almost obligatory in Lonely Hearts ads, and no doubt on job applications too.

But there is no reason to suppose that GSOH was high on the list of priorities for the selection board when they appointed the current editor of The People’s Daily, China’s Communist Party newspaper.

And quite right, too, you may say. Headlines over the past few days include Transformation Key to China’s Economic Growth; Top Lawmaker Calls for Greater Environmental Awareness; China’s Military to Promote Key Congress Tenets; and 19th session of Standing Committee of 11th CPPCC National Committee Concludes in Beijing. It’s clearly an unsuitable job for anyone prone to a fit of the giggles.

The world's greatest North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was named the Sexiest Man Alive by spoof site The Onion

The world's greatest North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was named the Sexiest Man Alive by spoof site The Onion

But, for all the virtues of humourlessness, it comes with peril attached. This week, The People’s Daily fell for a spoof news report in the American satirical magazine The Onion which declared that North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-Un had just been voted this year’s Sexiest Man Alive.

The People’s Daily went on to plaster its website with photos of Kim Jong-Un in various poses, and to quote the Onion’s spoof story as though its sentiments were authentic: ‘Blessed with an air of power that masks an unmistakable cute, cuddly side, Kim made this newspaper’s editorial board swoon with his impeccable fashion sense, chic short hairstyle and, of course, that famous smile.’

For most of us, it is inconceivable that anyone could take The Onion seriously. One of its slogans is ‘In a complex and changing world, you need to stay misinformed’.

Its lengthy spoof headlines, in particular, are wonderfully funny. ‘James Brown Warns Youths To Get Up Off That Thing: “You Could Fall and Hurt Yourself” He Says’ was one of my favourites, and I also recommend some of its pseudo-historical headlines, such as these, from the 1930s: ‘Stalin Announces Five-Year “Everybody Dies” Plan’ and ‘Recently Opened Empire State Building “Giant-Ape Proof” Say Architects’.

I imagine that the poor editor of The People’s Daily will now be whisked off on a special Humour Awareness Course, to stop him making the same mistake again. But it would be wrong to think that it is only the Chinese who can’t distinguish between a joke and a hard fact.

In 1986, my friends Terence Blacker and the late Willie Donaldson published a spoof Royal book called ‘101 Things You Didn’t Know About the Royal Lovebirds’ by ‘Talbot Church, The Man the Royals Trust’. Among its revelations were that the Ferguson family motto is ‘Full Steam Ahead’, and that ‘Fergie had a slight speech impediment and was unable to say the word “solicitor” until she was 21’.

GSOH: The People's Daily newspaper believed the award was serious and ran the story on their website

GSOH: The People's Daily newspaper believed the award was serious and ran the story on their website

You might think that everyone would get the joke, but not so: the hard-nosed American biographer Kitty Kelley named Talbot Church as a source in her book The Royals, crediting him with the information that the Duchess of York had once been subject to a police raid while inadvertently staying in a brothel in New Orleans.

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Over the years, I, too, have found my jokes being taken up as serious news stories. During the first Gulf War, when Scud missiles were flying to and fro, I wrote a piece in a magazine revealing that the Prime Minister’s son, Mark Thatcher, was about to open a wine-bar in Wandsworth called ‘Scuds’. The next day, two different newspapers despatched journalists and photographers to the wine bar, and were frustrated when they couldn’t locate it.

On another occasion, I wrote a spoof piece in The Guardian about the progressive school Summerhill: ‘Okay so maybe the kids can’t read and write — but when’s that ever been the point of school Last year, two of those so-called “uneducated” kids achieved a Grade C, thank you very much, and an under-matron gained her black belt in karate . . . The school budgerigar, Tarantino, won the underwater swimming competition, for which he was awarded a posthumous trophy.’

A couple of days later, a letter from the Chair of The Centre for Self-Managed Learning came through the post. ‘Absolutely spot-on — wonderful . . .’ he wrote, ‘We are 100 per cent with the sentiments in your article and are keen to do something practical to address the issue.’ At first I thought that this, too, was a joke, but then I realised, with a start, that it was serious.

But we should beware of sniggering too much at those who are taken in. In the world of news, what is real and what is a joke are becoming hard to tell apart.

Yesterday, there were reports that a woman had named her baby ‘Hashtag’, but no one seems to be able to work out whether it was real or spoof. And the same goes for plenty of other things, too. Sally Bercow, for instance: real or spoof