David Fisher

David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

Web satirist gets the last laugh

Conservative Party leader's umbrage over mock comments draws traffic to new satirical politics site

Ben Uffindell has decided to put his job-hunting on hold and concentrate on building up his satirical website The Civilian. Photo / Martin Hunter
Ben Uffindell has decided to put his job-hunting on hold and concentrate on building up his satirical website The Civilian. Photo / Martin Hunter

He looks like he could still be in school but Ben Uffindell has successfully lampooned some of the country's most important and self-important grown-ups.

But only eight weeks into founding satirical website The Civilian, Mr Uffindell, 22, found himself at the unemployed end of an argument with multi-millionaire and ambitious political aspirant Colin Craig.

He won. Humour also won.

But the other winners are the growing number of readers of Mr Uffindell's website, which now seems to have an assured place in Kiwi political commentary care of the legal fracas with Mr Craig.

The success of the website has led Mr Uffindell to shelve job applications for fulltime work to focus on turning The Civilian into a business. So he is no longer an unemployed political science graduate with dwindling savings who lives with his parents.

He is now a self-employed political science graduate with a small capital base (but still living with his parents).

The eight-week-old website's prominence rocketed after Mr Craig took offence over a bogus story in which invented quotes were attributed to him.

The right-wing Christian candidate sued - Mr Craig's lawyers said the satire risked making him "look ridiculous". There was quite a bit of worrying at the Uffindell house, too, although most of it was Mr Uffindell's mum. She, he said, "is perhaps among the people who don't get satire".

Regardless, his mum Jenny and dad Rob Uffindell are behind the decision to turn The Civilian into an internet startup in the suburbs of Christchurch. The family moved there from Whangarei about a decade ago. Mr Uffindell finished school and took political science at the University of Canterbury.

Halfway through the degree, he realised there was a high risk of ending up in a public service job in Wellington. "That was a big turning point for me. It was going to lead me to a rather uninspiring job in a place I would probably hate. I decided against that. I thought I would try and make something myself. I didn't know how that was going to go and I spent all last year in a malaise about it."

He worked as an English tutor and tried writing a novel. Then this year he dreamed up The Civilian "as a side project".

"I was actually in the process of applying for jobs when I thought it up. I dropped those applications when it went big."

The workload is greater than he expected, with one other writer who does the opinion pieces. Yesterday, he was interviewing other writers while fretting about keeping content consistent. "The goal right now is to get The Civilian to a place where it can bring in some money and I can make a modest living. My whole focus now is working to build it and make it viable for me."

As the website moved from niche-to-known, it produced offers of copy-writing jobs, columns and interest from those who wanted to advertise on it. "I had a lot of job applications out there when this went up. I have the savings to do this at the moment so I don't see why not."

The site has been likened to The Onion, a US-based news satire site. Mr Uffindell said it was an influence although it had lost its shine in recent years. He pointed to the domestic Eating Media Lunch as inspiration, which was merciless in its lampooning of public figures.

He said John Key was "an amazing target". David Cunliffe was the same during friction around Labour's leadership. Mr Craig was parodied again yesterday. "I wanted to make clear the rules of the game hadn't changed. He is just as likely to be quoted now as he was before."

He said he didn't believe his political leanings influenced his coverage. He admitted to being left-leaning, but put it down to youth. He said spectrums no longer reflect an individual's politics. "I view what I do to be completely non-partisan and I like it that way.

"Part of the value of satire is pointing out the absurdity, wherever it is and I think it is encouraging people to laugh at each other. If you endorse one side over another you give them a moral authority they don't actually have."

Quotes of statements people never made - from The Civilian

April 19
Labour, Greens announce plans to 'buy all the power', see what happens

Labour leader David Shearer: "We're not completely sure yet. It's complicated. We haven't owned that much electricity before, so it'll all be a bit overwhelming. I'm sure there's something you can do with all the electricity, though."

April 15
Justin Bieber hopes to play concert at Auschwitz

Justin Bieber: "There's just so much history at Auschwitz, and so many stories of sadness and pain. It's something that I can really relate to with songs like Nothing Like Us, which is about the struggle that I went through when I broke up with Selena [Gomez]."

April 5
Prime Minister faces questions over appointment of teddy bear to GCSB

Labour deputy leader Grant Robertson: "He clearly wanted Teddums in his inner circle, he pulled the strings to get him there, and he's been understating and diminishing that relationship for more than a week now."

March 27
ACT Party launches investigation into why John Banks is leader of ACT

ACT Party President John Boscawen: "That day we had a board meeting and more or less the moment we came in, we all sat down and looked at one another like 'What the **** are we doing? Why is that man our leader?"

March 21
Novopay debacle solved by restarting computer

Novopay minister Steven Joyce: "We tried everything we could think of. We made sure the plug was in, we ran a virus scan. You know, pretty much everything. And then John walks in this morning munching on his breakfast bagel, and he says 'Hey, Steve. Have you tried restarting the computer'?"

- NZ Herald

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