Art of offence: the political cartoon controversy

After a public furore, the New York Times has ceased publishing political cartoons altogether

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On 7 January 2015, 12 people were murdered by Islamist extremists in the Paris offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in retaliation for cartoons that mocked Islam and Sharia law. Hours later, the editorial board of the New York Times (NYT) published a leader declaring the attack “an assault on freedom everywhere”. The article recognised that, for the magazine’s editorial director, Stéphane “Charb” Charbonnier, who was killed in the attack, “free speech was nothing without the right to offend”, and that Charlie Hebdo’s “trademark satire” was based on “cartoons that push every hot button with glee”. Four years later, the NYT’s stance on provocative images has changed. This month, the paper will permanently cease publishing political cartoons.

The decision follows the publication of an anti-Semitic cartoon in its international edition. The NYT’s editorial apology blamed the cartoon’s publication on “a single editor working without adequate oversight”, and noted correctly that “such imagery is always dangerous”. But the incident appears to have persuaded senior management that all satirical cartoons are equally dangerous.

Ralph Steadman has been drawing political cartoons for newspapers and magazines since 1956. Cartoonists, he told me, must have an appetite for danger, for “the naughty… the slightly scary”.

To offend the right person is its own reward. “To get that response from someone, you almost feel it’s a compliment,” he said. But choosing the right person to offend is perhaps the most important part of the job. For Steadman, this appears to come naturally. “I don’t like bullies. I try to insult them, if I can.”

Steadman is now 83 and still publishing cartoons in the New Statesman. He accepts that he has indulged the urge to cross the line in a number of drawings that no newspaper or magazine is likely to publish, including a drawing of “Adolf Hitler, as an angel, with wings” and one of “a camel, farting towards Mecca”. Cartoonists need to experiment with the boundaries of acceptability, he says, to develop an intuitive understanding of the moral power of images. “You can usually tell if something is incorrect, or downright rude. There’s a certain unpleasant undercurrent. You feel it. And it’s not funny at all.”

The image that ended cartooning at the New York Times was of a drawing of Binyamin Netanyahu, whom it portrayed as a dog, wearing a Star of David collar and leading a blind, kippah-wearing Donald Trump. Its unpleasantness is obvious because it takes aim not only at politicians but at Jewish people, using cultural symbols as items of ridicule. It plays, too, on the dark history of Jews being represented as non-human animals.

This is not the first time that a cartoon depicting Netanyahu has been vilified, and other cases have been less clear-cut. In June 2018, the veteran Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell said he had been “unfairly traduced and censored” when his editor spiked a cartoon of Netanyahu and Theresa May posing in Downing Street for the cameras while the 21-year-old Palestinian medic Razan al-Najjar, who had been shot and killed by the Israeli army the previous week, burned in a fireplace. Bell’s editor, Kath Viner, explained that “it seemed clear that the fire conjured up an image of the Holocaust”.

In 2013, Gerald Scarfe was widely criticised for a Sunday Times cartoon that depicted Netanyahu building a wall using blood as cement. Scarfe has since been replaced as the paper’s editorial page cartoonist.

The sensitivity of the Jewish community to satirical art that evokes anti-Semitic imagery, whether intentionally or not, is understandable. But the power of cartoons to shock is making embattled publishers ever more wary. Last week, the cartoonist Michael de Adder claimed his contract with four Canadian newspapers had abruptly ended after he drew Donald Trump playing golf over the bodies of drowned migrants. 

At the same time, others are standing up for illustration. The Washington Post declared that “editorial cartoons are democracy’s canary in a coal mine”. Martin Rowson, the chair of the British Cartoonists’ Association, called the NYT’s decision a “combination of cowardice, pomposity, over-reaction and hypocrisy”.

Steadman agrees. “I think it’s too sweeping. It’s ridiculous. And it’s rather a lazy response. It doesn’t solve anything, and it doesn’t prove anything, does it? Other than that they have the power to stop all cartoons.”

While publishers grow more sensitive to the unpredictable tides of anger that social media can generate, Steadman – a lifelong admirer of anti-fascist artists from Leslie Illingworth to George Grosz – says political cartoons are necessary to reflect the grotesque new face of politics. For Steadman, what matters is that cartoonists care. “If you feel somebody’s being wrong, I think you can do a drawing about it that really gets through the thick skin, to the very heart of the matter. From early on, I wanted to change the world.” He chuckles. “And 50 years later, I’ve achieved it – it’s now worse than it was when I started.” 

Will Dunn is managing editor of the New Statesman.  

This article appears in the 05 July 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn delusion