This article appears in the Witness section of the Spring 2017 issue of the New Humanist. Subscribe today.

In 1997 Conservative MP David Amess appeared on a Channel 4 programme earnestly condemning a new drug called “Cake”. “A big yellow death bullet in the head of some poor user – or custard gannet as the dealers call them,” he said. The only problem was, Cake didn’t exist and the programme he appeared on was Brass Eye, a taboo-breaking satirical show that eviscerated Britain’s media culture.

The show was the creation of Chris Morris, already well known for the spoof news programme The Day Today, which he co-created with Armando Iannucci. When Brass Eye first aired 20 years ago, the broadcasting code forbade programme makers from misleading interviewees for the purpose of entertainment. Brass Eye gleefully ignored this restriction, luring politicians and minor celebrities into making all manner of absurd statements. After it was aired, Channel 4 defended the show and an amendment – often referred to as “the Brass Eye clause” – was added to the code.

Amess, who also raised the topic of Cake in the House of Commons, wasn’t the only public figure to fall prey. Among others, the show featured comedian Bernard Manning describing a girl throwing up her own pelvis after eating Cake and radio DJ Dr Fox saying that it was “scientific fact” that paedophiles shared more genes with crabs than humans.

In 2001 Brass Eye returned with a one-off episode, the now notorious Paedogeddon, which took aim at media hysteria over child abuse. It was insensitive, brash and very funny. At the time, the tabloids condemned it as “unspeakably sick”, while the Guardian quoted Morris telling a colleague: “If I was happy at the result I’d need to have had my brains sucked out through a straw. Because the only conclusion is such a depressing one – that the standard of public debate is so lamentably low; what’s good or satisfying about that?”

Brass Eye was far more than a satire of news coverage. It took aim at ignorance and hypocrisy, highlighting the stupidity of celebrities and politicians who will parrot clearly ludicrous lines without taking a few minutes to fact-check, but also the frequently inconsistent responses of the public. Twenty years on, its taboo-busting comedy remains as shocking and prescient as ever, illustrating the absurdity that follows when facts cease to matter. The Paedogeddon episode ends with a mob of people setting fire to a street: we wouldn’t dare suggest that as an apt metaphor for today’s political and media discourse.