Cartoon 'insensitive' but not racist, says commissioner

05:49, May 30 2013
Al Nisbet cartoon
Al Nisbet's cartoon published in the Marlborough Express on May 29.
Al Nisbet cartoon
Al Nisbet's cartoon published in The Press on May 30.

Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy has questioned the high threshold for a finding of racism after newspaper cartoons about the Government's breakfast in schools programme created a storm of controversy.

The cartoons, by award-winning cartoonist Al Nisbet, were printed in The Marlborough Express yesterday and The Press today.

The Marlborough Express cartoon featured a group of adults dressed in school uniforms heading to school with bowls in hands. Among them were a man and woman who looked to be Maori or Pasifika.

The man says to the woman, who has a cigarette hanging from her mouth: "Psst. If we can get away with this, the more cash left for booze, smokes and pokies."

The Press cartoon featured a group of seven rotund people with Lotto tickets, beer cans and cigarette packets.

The man says: "Free school food is great. Eases our poverty and puts something in you kids' bellies."


Devoy told reporters she had seen The Marlborough Express cartoon and found it offensive and appalling.

"It continues to stereotype certain populations, and it continues to stigmatise people who live in poverty, particularly children," she said.

The cartoons were stereotyping Polynesian people as spending their money on cigarettes and gambling, and ''that is wrong''.

"... some parents living in poverty do their very, very, very best to feed their children, and probably don't even rely on food in schools and other things," she said.

The cartoons did not reach the level of racism within the commission's inquiries and complaints process. The threshold under the law was "very high" and was about inciting racial disharmony.

"Perhaps it is not right that the threshold is that high," but that was a matter for the Government, she said.

Asked why anyone should make a complaint about the cartoons when the threshold for what was considered racism was so high, she replied: "I ask myself that all the time."

Despite that, the Human Rights Commission could still address the issue, and she encouraged people to complain to the commission, the editors of the newspapers and the Press Council.

Devoy said the editors should apologise for running the cartoons.

There was a right to freedom of expression and speech, and people could say and print what they liked even if it was offensive, but they needed to act responsibly.

"I don't think it was OK for them to print it, I'm just saying that they're allowed to print it," she said.

It would not be any more acceptable if just white people were depicted.

"What we're continuing to do is stigmatise  those families or children who live in poverty, and making the assumptions that they are overweight, that they are brown, and that they spend their money on cigarettes, pokies and gambling... and those are the myths that we need to stop and break down because it's actually not going to improve the problem of child poverty in New Zealand," Devoy said.

The Press editor Joanna Norris said the newspaper would not be apologising for a piece of comment that expressed a strong view.

"I am an editor, not a censor, and we regularly publish content that expresses a range of views, and this is just one of those."  

She said cartoons did not necessarily represent the views of the newspaper, and in this case the editorial line on the issue taken by The Press was different from that of the cartoonist.

"That has been that the most vulnerable members of our community need as much support as possible and that addressing the root cause of children going hungry needs to be prioritised by this government," Norris said.

"Our cartoon very clearly had people from a range of ethnic backgrounds, some of whom were from the Maori and Pacific community and some of whom were from Pakeha communities. People have interpreted that as a racist attack. In my view, it's not."

Marlborough Express editor Steve Mason said the intention had never been to offend people.

"The intention was always to provoke discussion around a really important social issue, and I think we might be losing sight of that."

He discussed the cartoon with some senior team members at the newspaper when it came across his desk.

"We all agreed it was fairly close to the line, but there are times on important issues where you do need to push the boundaries a little bit, the main objective obviously being to stimulate discussion on a really important issue."


Nisbet said the outcry was unexpected as he had done "a hell of a lot worse".

"Obviously the cartoon worked. It got reaction. You've got to push the envelope otherwise you have namby-pamby PC cartoons,'' he said.

"I was born in Scotland; we get stereotyped all the time. But you don't hear Scots complaining, because they've got a sense of humour.

"I think people should lighten up a bit."

Nisbet said he was not racist, and the cartoons were not intended to be so.

Rather, it was directed at anyone who complained about poverty and "blow their money on booze, fags and pokies".

The main idea with The Marlborough Express cartoon was adults dressing up as children.

Some of the characters were dark because it was mainly northern schools taking up the programme, he said.

"They [complainers] always point at the dark figures, they never look at the white ones."

Maori affairs blogger Morgan Godfery said the cartoons were "playing to a familiar script" and were designed to cause "maximum offence".

"Two brown parents - either Maori or Pasifika - playing to a familiar script. Add an element of classism and fat shaming and you have a cartoon that 'promotes discussion'. Poverty isn't funny, though.

"Race is a proxy for class. The cartoons recognise that and mix the two for maximum offence. Not in an ironic, making a deep social comment sort of way, but in crass play at the readers prejudice.

"In an ideal world the media would be better than that, but not the Marlborough Express and the Christchurch Press." 


Maori Party MP Te Ururoa Flavell said the cartoon was racist.

''It's way out of line and it's racist.''

He called on Devoy to take action on the cartoon, and if the law meant the cartoon did not meet the threshold of racism under the law, then the law should change.

''We'd be hopeful that she does more than just talk about it but take some action.''

National MP Tau Henare asked what Maori had done to deserve that kind of joking at their expense.

''All my mokopuna (grandchildren) see are big Maori with a smoke hanging out their mouth. That's not what their parents are, that's not what their grandparents hopefully are,'' Henare said.

''It's just gotta stop and people in positions of power like a cartoonist for a newspaper should know better.''

NZ First leader Winston Peters said it wasn't clear whether or not the cartoon was actually depicting Maori or Pacific people.

''It's a bit confusing because I don't recall seeing many island women or Maori women with a ribbon in their hair the way the cartoon image is, so a bit difficult to work it out.''

Asked if it was racist, Peters said it couldn't be if the people depicted were not Maori or Pacific.

''I just looked at the imagery and thought, 'well,I don't quite get it'.''


Readers turned to Twitter to vent their disgust, calling them "racist" and "poor-bashing".

"Hilarious. Would have gone down really well in apartheid South Africa."

"The irony of putting a cartoon like that on a page titled 'Insight' ... 'Al Nisbet Today' ... gone tomorrow please."

"Well, I sure am looking forward to Michael Laws' column this weekend about the PC lynch mob going after Al Nisbet for just telling the truth."

"Cheers to Al Nisbet, festering pustule on the buttock of the profession of satire, for dragging racist discourse into the light of day."

"Can someone just whack Al Nisbet on the nose with a rolled up newspaper?"

"I no we all joke about the lack of culture in the South Island but this is something else." [sic] welcomes readers comments but they will be closely moderated. Personal abuse will not be published.

The Press