The essential moral of Hans Christian Andersen’s story ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ for people who live in a modern western democracy is that when the laughing stops, the emperor is still the emperor. Indeed, he is more powerful for having allowed himself to be laughed at. As for the small boy who pointed out his nakedness, he can deal with him later.
In his new title sequence for The Simpsons, already shown in the US and due to air in Britain on 21 October, the graffiti artist Banksy tracks away from the Simpson family on its suburban Springfield sofa to show a subterranean Asian sweatshop making Simpsons merchandise. A child dips images of Bart into a vat of acid, kittens are pulped to make stuffing for Bart dolls, the tongue of a beheaded dolphin licks envelopes, an enslaved panda hauls a cart, an exhausted, broken unicorn punches holes in DVDs.
Why would the producers of a TV show that rakes in billions of dollars for Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Entertainment Group allow a notoriously subversive artist to satirise so bitterly the exploitative underside of its own comedy? Because it knows that by doing so, by being big enough to contain and hence neutralise mockery of itself, it will make more billions.
Murdoch’s plan to take full control of BSkyB in Britain, with all the potential for Foxification of British TV that this entails (in the US, the English X-Factor producer Simon Cowell shares a network with the ranting, weeping American nationalist demagogue Glenn Beck, whose show he has hinted at emulating) has so given media rivals the heebie jeebies that papers as mutually hostile as the Guardian and the Daily Mail have made joint representations to the government to try to stop it.
It would be more comforting if Murdoch were an ideologue, but what the Banksy Simpsons sequence points to – rather like Beck himself, whose manner teeters between hate-mongering and comedy – is less the desire to promote an ideology than to contain all ideologies for the purpose of profit, with entertainment being the preferred container. What Murdoch seems to want to be is the context of all things, the ultimate Manichean media shell. Inside, left v. right, tree hugger v. petrol head, local v. transnational. Outside, profit, the void, and Murdoch, looking down.