THE CHASER, FAKE NEWS AND THE ZODIAC KILLER: IN CONVERSATION WITH CHARLES FIRTH

Charles Firth

Photographed by Abril Felman

It’s a rainy Friday when Charles Firth slides into the seat opposite me. Dressed in a blue and white checked shirt, he looks like your ordinary man on the street. But Charles is far from ordinary. Best known for his work on The Chaser, his unassuming appearance hides a dizzying intellect and biting wit.

Recently back from the US, Charles (only his sister is allowed to call him Charlie) launches into a rollicking tale of The Chaser’s humble beginnings. “Basically, I didn’t want to get a job. I’d gotten to the end of 1998 and I was leaving uni. I went for a cadetship at the Australian Financial Review because I did economics as part of my degree but I was rejected. So, I decided to set up The Chaser.”

It wasn’t always easy. Imagine four young men, recently out of university, crammed into a bedroom as they tried to make something out of nothing. “I remember in the first year we were doing it, I made a grand total of $6,000. But it still felt like we were on the cusp of something big.”

Of course, Charles was involved in politics even before The Chaser. You might have heard about how he bravely broke through a plate glass window in 1997 to protest the University Senate’s resolution to introduce upfront fees for local students. That’s not how Charles remembers it.

“There were a few hundred of us there, and we were going, ‘This cannot happen! This is outrageous!’ The Senate was inadvisably being held on the ground floor, so Craig [Reucassel] and I were both trying to pull open the window to get in.”

It was actually Craig who pulled the window hard it cracked. The crowd of assembled students stood momentary shock before suddenly shouting, galvanised into action.

“I remember handing my mobile phone and wallet to this guy and telling him, ‘I don’t want anything valuable on me,’ before going through the window. It was the most humiliating moment of my life. What I had imagined in my mind is that I’d go, ‘No up-front fees! I’m here to save the day!’ Instead, the police got me in this incredibly painful armlock so all I managed to get out was, ‘I’ll go quietly!’”

Charles roars with laughter at himself. “They ended up not passing the fees but my heroic moment was completely undermined.”

After taking a moment to catch our breaths, Charles and I get onto more serious matters. Namely, his experiences in the US during the recent elections. Journeying through swing states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, he noticed that everyone he met supported Trump. It’s all too easy to paint Trump supporters as ignorant bigots and racists, but Charles knows the truth is far more complicated than that.

“I spent 10 days with this one guy in North Carolina. This was the sort of man who would say, ‘Muslims are the real Nazis’. He was a real bundle of contradictions though. He was horrible about Mexican immigrants and wanted to get rid of them all, but his best friend was a Mexican immigrant who entered America illegally.” There’s a momentary pause as he considers this dichotomy.

“The thing is, that contradiction is very human. What you have to recognise about Trump supporters is that they have a very narrow view of what the world is. They’ve lived in a small town, and the American education system has served them poorly. Their intuition about America’s place in the world is masked by the shittiness of their own personal existences.”

Of course, in this era of post-truth and alternative facts, the concept of “fake news” as a counter to verifiable fact has done the American people a great disservice as well. “There is a double-think in public discourse. You can have a narrative that Russian involvement in the US is entire fake, and you can have the New York Times and Washington Post saying that it’s real. And that’s the wonderful thing about propaganda – you can have two tracts of spin.”

Charles Firth

Charles in conversation with Prof. Nick Enfield - Photographed by Abril Felman

According to Charles, the world hasn’t changed so drastically that a persona can’t distinguish between truth and spin. The rules of determining a credible piece of information are the same as they ever were. What has changed is that there is now a wholesale assault on journalistic integrity. The question then remains, if the public maintains the ability to discern fact from fiction, why even attempt to propagate the concept of fake news?

Charles think it’s the result of a fractured ego. “You have to be a person of very limited intellect to want to repeat the same thing over and over again. Your ego needs to be completely out of whack, and you need a genuine lack of intellectual curiosity to put yourself on that path. Take Trump, for example. I think he’s in it for his own self-aggrandisement and to feed his own psychological problems.”

As for Trump’s supporters, Charles believes their attitude stems from personal dissatisfaction. “You’ve got an unhappy marriage, you’ve got a horrible job… of course you want someone to blame. It stems from resentment and ignorance. And that’s fascism at its core; the idea that there is an ‘other’ that you can blame to feel better about yourself.”

It’s a grim picture that Charles paints; an age where people are filled with fear and resentment because it’s all they know. In his opinion, America’s future is bleak.

“Is there hope for America? I don’t think so. Trump’s government has inflicted so much damage that I’m not sure American democracy can recover. There will be a point (whether it’s a building exploding or a fire in Congress) that allows Trump to declare a state of emergency. It’ll allow him to take control in a way that is deeply unconstitutional, but races so far ahead of the constitutional checks that it doesn’t matter. There will need to be a reconstitution of America before it can get back to what we’d call demographic norms.”

Outside, the rain has started to let up but it’s still uncertain whether we’ll manage to squeeze a few moments of sunshine. I turn to Charles and ask the one question that’s been on the tip of my tongue this whole time: “Charles, if you were in the US, who would you have voted for?”

He stops to think. “I probably would’ve ended up voting for Clinton… or Trump. Maybe Trump.” We laugh as we stand up and walk outside, just as the sun starts peeking through the clouds. As I’m saying goodbye, Charles stops me briefly. “No, no, wait. Who was the evil Zodiac Killer? Ted Cruz? I would have voted for the Zodiac Killer. Put that in the article.”

Charles will be appearing as a panellist in the University of Sydney’s Outside the Square series, and giving his thoughts on the phenomena of post-truth. Is Truth Dead? How to be Informed: Navigating Post-Truth Cultures will be held on 4th Mary 2017 at The Old Rum Store, Chippendale Creative Precinct.

Charles Firth is a graduate of The University of Sydney (BA, 1999)

Article by Theodora Chan (BA, MECO 2010; BA, HONS 2012), Co-Founder and Content Director at Pen and Pixel.