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A Civil Discussion

Since beginning in March, satirical news site The Civilian has fooled journalists, enraged Colin Craig, and been hailed as New Zealand’s answer to The Onion. Not to mention nearly 20,000 likes on Facebook, and the launch of their political wing, The Civilian Party, due later this year. Salient speaks to Editor and future party leader, 21-year-old Ben Uffindell.


Salient: What inspired you to start The Civilian in the first place?

Ben Uffindell: I’ve been asked that question many, many times and it never gets any easier because I’m not exactly sure. I sat down one day earlier this year, and I’d been looking to get some work published online for some time because I’d done quite a bit of writing but I’d never really had an outlet for it. Well, I’d had an outlet for it at one point; in University of Canterbury’s Canta magazine, but I stopped doing that in 2011, and I hadn’t really had an outlet since then. So I wanted to get something published online, and long story short I just sat down and said to myself, “What is something humorous in nature that New Zealand doesn’t really have?”, and immediately my mind went to The Onion as a model for satirical news. I thought, “Well, we don’t have one of those, wouldn’t it be great if we had one of those?” That’s how it came about—quite simply, actually.

S: Since starting in March, The Civilian gained popularity fairly quickly. Were you surprised by the response?

B: Shocked. Absolutely floored. When I set it up it was on a very basic WebGator host account which couldn’t handle a whole lot of traffic because I didn’t expect a whole lot of traffic. I sort of thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice if I had a couple of hundred people who would read this? That would be fantastic.” And just in the first day it just went crazy, and I had to reconsider what I was doing. Initially it was going to be a side project; it’s become a full-time endeavour now, that I’m trying to make self-sustaining. I’m getting there actually, much better than I thought. It became a full-time endeavour because doing it every weekday, along with a whole host of other things, and the political party we’re now setting up… it has become a full-time endeavour and it’s been well worth it. I just didn’t expect to be putting that sort of time into it because I didn’t expect it to be this popular.

S: How is the progress of your political party going? We notice that you’ve got twice as many Facebook likes as the Labour Party so it must be doing alright!

B: Yeah! And as everyone knows, you need 500 Facebook likes to register with the Electoral Commission. The political party is something that we haven’t really properly launched yet. It’s something that we put out there and said “Look, we’re going to do this”, to get people on board, but we haven’t fully launched it yet. We actually have a surprisingly large number of members; I was most surprised by how many people are willing to use the post. I expected most of the applications to come electronically, but it seems people are quite fond of sending letters.

One of the things that we got wrong, which was terrible, is we initially put up the wrong PO Box number—we had all these letters going to the wrong PO Box. Fortunately, eventually the Post Office figured it out, and redirected most of it, but I probably upset a couple of people who got
their letter sent back.

S: Do you think that’s what happened to all of United Future’s membership applications as well?

B: Yeah I’m sure they just got lost in the post, sometime between when the sender sent it and they died. I don’t know.

As for the political party, there will be a website, and a proper launch coming up sometime soon. I have to be honest, because of the nonsense surrounding The Pakeha Party we might hold off a little bit longer to let them destroy themselves.

S: Are you worried you’d be competing for the same votes?

B: I hope not. I sincerely hope not. If we’re competing for the same votes then I think that would signal something bad about us. It’s not for vote crossover, it’s just media attention really. They’re the new party on the block, with all due deference to them.

S: Have you got any intention to stand in an electorate or will you be going for the five per cent?

B: Yes, I will be personally standing in an electorate and we’ll be looking at fielding other candidates, but I cannot say any more on that front.

S: Apart from high-profile cases like Colin Craig, have you been threatened with defamation by anyone else since you’ve launched?

B: No, it was just Colin. Poor Colin, it was just him. I’ve not had a single other defamation threat. Certainly not since then. I just don’t anticipate it. I think the Colin-Craig thing was sort of helpful in a way because it showed that it won’t really go anywhere. I think it probably would be different if it wasn’t Colin Craig though. Him being Colin Craig didn’t help his case. I’ve certainly never had anything of the sort. I get angry emails all the time, from all kinds of people, for all manner of reasons, but certainly no threats.

S: Does The Civilian Party have any policy platforms that you’re planning on campaigning on at this stage?

B: Absolutely. And that is why we’re waiting for the launch of the website, because we do have a policy platform, and will be announcing that when we launch the website. People will be able to go to the website and go all over it. It’ll look vaguely like the Labour and National Party website, so visitors can trawl through it and find out what we believe, or what we don’t. There will be a policy platform: one aimed at bringing about negative change.

S: Does The Civilian or The Civilian Party have an official position on Gareth Hughes’ Comedy and Satire Bill?

B: The Civilian Party would really like to outlaw all satire. We believe it’s outrageous that something like The Civilian can exist, and quote people as having said things that they didn’t say.

S: Apart from the party, how else are you looking to expand The Civilian empire?

B: Right now it’s not about expansion. I had a few offers of that from various angles, and at the moment it’s about maintaining The Civilian as a site, and growing it as a site. Continuing it for long enough so that it understands what it is before it starts to transform into another medium. I’m quite content with what I’m doing now, and I’m not immediately looking for expansion. I already have to deal with what is almost too enormous for me to deal with, as it is.

S: As a satirical news site, obviously you can provide a type of commentary on current events that other media outlets can’t. In that sense, what have been your proudest achievements so far?

B: When the site first launched, the article that really threw The Civilian into the mainstream was an article about John Key dismissing a nuclear
attack by North Korea. This was an insanely popular article, and one of the things people said about it, repeatedly, was that “It could almost be true. Isn’t it great that this is so close to reality. John Key does dismiss things all the time, so wouldn’t he just dismiss a nuclear strike on us?” It was a deliberate attempt to satirise John Key’s dismissiveness, but it also said a lot to me that it was widely believed by a lot of people, and that people thought it could be true. [To me that said] that maybe people’s perceptions of John Key had been taken a bit far, and maybe the opposition to his government was driven to blind silliness. When people took that article seriously, and other articles seriously, it’s less a commentary on the accuracy of the article, as it was a commentary on people’s perceptions of the world and what they’re willing to believe and maybe there’s something off with what people are willing to believe. I think that’s the thing I’m proud of: not the emulation of reality, as the highlighting—accidentally, entirely without my intention—people’s willingness to believe things that should really not be true.

S: With those results in mind, do you think New Zealand needs more satire?

B: I think everywhere always needs more satire. I don’t think we would ever reach a point at which there would be too much. Life for so many people is too serious. If we could all take things less seriously and be less angry at one another, then I think the world would be a much better place. I think satire helps that because it encourages people to laugh at themselves, and it encourages people to laugh at others as well. But you have to be able to both, and the more satire the better, in my opinion.

S: Do you think that since The Civilian’s come out that politicians have been more engaged with having a lol on Twitter? You seem to have a bit of banter going with Judith Collins on the odd occasion.

B: I never used Twitter before The Civilian so I couldn’t really comment on that because I don’t know. All I know is Twitter post-The Civilian. I couldn’t claim to have any influence, but I have been pleased to see that a lot of politicians do laugh along with what’s on there and that they are willing to have a laugh at themselves. I’m not sure Judith Collins is an example of that. She very faithfully retweets the articles that favour her, although everyone does that. But I’ll be honest, I like Judith. That’s nothing about National, or the policies, but I appreciate that she is open and willing to say things that other politicians would feel that they are too guarded to say. That’s no political commentary, I just enjoy the fact that she uses Twitter that way and I encourage more politicians to do so.

S: Regarding the Labour leadership ‘coup’, what’s your opinion: letter or no letter?

B: You’re asking me to pick between believing journalists and believing politicians. I believe there was probably a letter, I think Duncan probably got ahead of himself a little bit, and decided that this letter had been more circulated than it had been. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a letter and someone pulled it, when, as they do, Duncan and Patrick got a bit ahead of themselves.

S: Too much Kronic.

B: Yeah. you want these things to stay quiet, and I don’t know who’s leaking to Patrick Gower and WhaleOil, but they’re doing a very poor job of it.

S: Do you have any plans to stop the letter-coup culture spreading from Labour to The Civilian?

B: No, we want more coups in our party. We’re all for coups in our party. We’re gonna have a few coups.

S: Do you have a political-leader role model?

B: Well we liked Aaron Gilmore. I will be asking him to join the party. If anyone was concerned that Aaron Gilmore wouldn’t be a member of The Civilian Party, he will be. He’ll be there, 59th on the list, where he belongs. We don’t know he’ll be there, but if he says yes he’ll be there. He’s welcome.

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About the Author ()

Molly McCarthy and Stella Blake-Kelly are Salient Co-Editors for 2013, AKA Salient Babes.

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