What do we see / read?
The mock article was published in January 2022 in a Portuguese spoof newspaper entitled O Inimigo Público (The Public Enemy), which is a weekly supplement of the Público daily newspaper.
Text of the article in translation: “João Rendeiro was arrested by the South African authorities in his pyjamas and taken to the police station along with the teddy bear he was with at the time. The Portuguese Police believes the teddy bear to be the real culprit of all the embezzlement and swindles of BPP, while poor João Rendeiro is nothing more than a front man. João Rendeiro should be released and go back to bed, while the teddy bear will stay in the same cell in Évora prison where José Sócrates stayed the night.”
The news image shows two mugshots of a teddy bear, in front view and side view, against a backdrop with horizontal lines measuring height, typical of police identification records.
The news article is about the December 2021 capture, in compliance with an international arrest warrant, of a notorious former Portuguese banker on the run in South African territory.
João Rendeiro, founder and CEO of one of Portugal’s major banks, Banco Privado Português (BPP), had been sentenced to several prison terms for financial crimes. Among these were fraud, swindling and money laundering, which were at the root of BPP’s spectacular bankruptcy in 2010. Rendeiro was at large for three months, during which time he dared give a zoom interview on Portuguese television saying he had no intention of returning to Portugal to serve his sentence, although he found it hard to live away from his family and pets. The scandal took an unexpected turn when he was arrested in a five-star hotel in Durban. As it was 7 AM, he was still in his pyjamas. The fugitive then outrageously declared he had “no intention” of presenting himself “to the Portuguese authorities or the Portuguese courts”. However, he was denied bail by the South African court, and is now awaiting extradition to Portugal, where he is expected to serve his sentence.
The news article also refers to a second character: José Socrates, former Portuguese prime minister, himself a suspect of major economic crimes which are currently in court and which caused him to spend a year in pre-trial detention.
What public issue is addressed here?
Corruption in Portugal, particularly bank corruption, has been all too obvious. In the last two decades a string of cases has dramatically sullied the image of the Portuguese banking sector – and, by extension, of the justice system, unable to enforce the law. When it comes to Portuguese bankers, there have been many suspicions, very few convictions, but no arrests. In fact, the worst punishment that has befallen the bankers involved in criminal cases is that they can no longer be bankers – though they can carry on living in their luxurious, albeit officially seized, homes and lead a luxurious, even if discredited, life. The collapse of several Portuguese banks (BES, BPN, BPP) has cost the taxpayers over 14 thousand million euros, in between 2008 and 2016 alone. The key that has saved from prison all Portuguese bankers suspected of crimes seems to be having access to the best lawyers – those that only money can buy. Suspended sentences are the usual outcome of exceedingly long and intricate court processes. In public opinion, the prevailing idea is one of absolute impunity and failure of the justice system.
In this light, João Rendeiro’s imprisonment in a South African jail, temporary as it may be, has a slightly rewarding taste to all those who yearn for justice.
What does the humour do?
The way humour works in this verbal-pictorial text is twofold: it is content-based but it is also form-based.
Content-wise, humour lies mainly in the absurdity of attributing rational qualities to an object (a teddy bear). In script theory terms (Raskin 1985), the primary opposition is, therefore, between human and non-human: the banker (a human) is guilty of fraud, but the news article claims that the teddy bear (non-human) is the true culprit. Besides, the opposition possible vs. impossible also primarily underlies the idea that a non-sentient and non-rational character can be held accountable for a crime.
This funny personification relies on other, secondary, oppositions for its full effect. First, the teddy bear is typically cute, and looks completely harmless with its head enquiringly tilted, which is in flagrant opposition to the idea of a criminal: hence the humorous clash between the harmless and the criminal character.
Secondly, the teddy bear happens to be a children’s toy owned by an adult. This incongruity can be read as carrying a sexual innuendo, aggravated by the nocturnal context of the banker’s arrest: he is caught in bed in his pyjamas and in the company of a teddy bear. The possibility of a children’s toy script concealing a sex toy script is accompanied by a further, perhaps more remote, sexual reading: “bear” is a term in gay slang for hairier and larger sex partners. The text quickly switches from the sex script altogether to the crime script. After all, the teddy bear is not the fugitive’s lover, but his accomplice and, what is more, the crime’s actual mastermind.
This paves the way for the third secondary script opposition working in the text: the one between guilt and innocence. By accusing the teddy bear, the text says the banker is not to blame, which is a purely ironical stunt, but one that the banker himself is used to making in real life: he has been condemned by several courts and has lost all the appeals, but he still claims to be entitled to the freedom of an innocent man.
Form-wise, the text is humorous insofar as it resembles a typical news article only to be found not to be a “true” news article. Yet, its structural characteristics mislead the reader into thinking so, since the text parodies the organization layout of a news story: it has a title resembling news titles, an image like any image illustrating news pieces, and a text which works as an inverted pyramid, the typical format of news stories. The text characteristically opens by answering the questions “who” (João Rendeiro), “what” (was arrested), “where” (in South Africa / by South African police), “how” (in his pyjamas), and “with whom” (with his teddy bear). The sentences that follow narrow down the information and supply details. Besides, the text parodies the type of language (formal register), the syntactic construction (3rd person, subject-verb-object sentences) and the kind of vocabulary (objective, non-technical words) of a regular news story. The incongruity between this regular “form” and the nonsensical “content” described above is a basic humour ingredient in news satire.
Ermida, Isabel (2015), “Playing upon news genre conventions: The case of Twain’s news satire”. In: Birte Boos and Lucia Kornexl (eds.), Historical News Discourse. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, pp. 223-250.
Ermida, Isabel (2017), “Newspaper Funnies at the Dawn of Modernity: Multimodal Humour in Early American Comic Strips”. In: Minna Palander-Collin, Maura Ratia and Irma Taavitsainen (eds.), Diachronic Developments in English News Discourse. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, pp. 267-293.
Raskin, Victor (1985), Semantic Mechanisms of Humor. Dordrecht: Reidel.