Cartoon row misses the point

RIC STEVENS - DEPUTY EDITOR
Last updated 08:01 31/05/2013
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OPINION: On the wall of my office in Press House in Gloucester St is a drawing by New Zealander David Low, described by Britain's Guardian newspaper in a 1963 obituary as the "dominant cartoonist of the western world".

The cartoon I look at every working day, which sadly does not belong to me, is an inoffensive thing.

Canterbury's founding fathers reach out from a book - the pages of history - to a young couple of 1950, congratulating them on reaching the Christchurch Centenary.

Judging by a furore over our cartoons that blew up yesterday, it seems some readers would want all our cartoons to be that nice.

But not all Low's cartoons were as gentle. His acerbic Rendezvous of 1939 depicts a meeting between Stalin and Hitler, who are shown politely bowing while describing each other as "the scum of the earth" and "the bloody assassin of the workers" respectively.

After World War II, the British-based Low found his name on Hitler's blacklist of people to be rounded up should the Nazis ever successfully invade the United Kingdom. But he had enemies at home as well as abroad - the British press once decried him as a warmonger.

Low was knighted in the end.

Low was an exponent of a long tradition of newspaper cartooning which has always tended to push boundaries. Unlike the editorial which often sits alongside them, cartoons do not necessarily represent the view of the newspaper, but very much that of the artist.

They are generally intended to be humorous, but it is more important that they contain a political and social message, to provoke thought and sometimes controversy. They are published in the great Western tradition of free speech, and as such they can be claimed as a cultural taonga - to be cherished and defended.

One of The Press' two main cartoonists is Al Nisbet. Nisbet is a good friend to Christchurch and many of his drawings over recent years have staunchly stood up for ordinary people whose lives have been blighted by earthquakes, aftershocks, insurance claims, EQC difficulties and school closures and reorganisations.

But some of his work has a particular Nisbet edge which, at times, gets his editors into trouble.

Nisbet certainly made our day interesting yesterday.

Two of his cartoons, variations on a theme, had been published: In The Press a family was depicted surrounded by cigarettes, Lotto tickets, beer cans and hi-tech gadgets. The parents were praising the idea of free food in schools, because it "eases our poverty, and puts something in you kids' bellies".

In the Marlborough Express, a whole family - even Grandma - appeared in school uniform, headed for the free food, with the father saying, "Psst. If we can get away with this, the more cash left for booze, smokes and pokies".

Critics who took to social media and emailed complaints noted that the characters depicted in the cartoons appeared to be Maori or Pacific Islanders.

Mana Party co-leader John Minto said the drawings played to the "lazy racism of many well-off Pakeha".

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He also said they were an attack on the most vulnerable children in New Zealand who did not have the opportunity to defend themselves.

Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy said the Marlborough Express variant of the cartoon was "sadly insensitive to the issue of children living in poverty".

"This is not particularly clever and many will find it hurtful and offensive," she said.

"The worst aspect, in my opinion, is that it stigmatises efforts to address the situation that sees too many of our children living in poverty.

"Beyond that, it is glaringly obvious that the cartoon portrays Maori or Pacific as the butt of its attempted humour. Using such negative stereotypes in this way is insulting and derogatory in the extreme."

Many things are forgivable in a cartoon, but "racism" - or at least the use of racist, cultural and religious stereotypes - is very difficult to defend. The way that, through history, racist imagery has been used to oppress minorities means that even a whiff of it in this more enlightened era is problematic and can be offensive.

This is understandable. Right-thinking people would not dream of using the N-word in public these days, so why is a stereotypical cartoon of a dark-skinned person any better?

When The Press variant of the free-food cartoon crossed the editorial desk on Wednesday evening, this very topic was discussed. The possibility that Nisbet's work would be taken for racial stereotyping could not be ignored.

On balance, however, we editors could not be sure about it. Although the skin colour of the characters in the cartoon was a light brown, their ethnicity was not actually certain. Three of the six had ginger hair. Did that mean that the family was actually Irish or Scots?

The Marlborough Express cartoon characters could be taken as more Polynesian, because of their facial features and because one of them sports tattoos. But many people from diverse cultures have tattoos these days.

One of the children in that cartoon is red-headed and one of them is blonde. Some members of the family are drawn with skin tone similar to or only a shade darker than Nisbet's drawings of Press reporter Martin van Beynen, whose heritage is Dutch.

In other words, the complainants have assumed that the characters in the cartoons are Polynesian or Maori, and maybe because Nisbet drew most of them as overweight.

Whatever the cartoonist's real intentions, people have looked at the characters depicted and made assumptions based on their appearance. If there is cultural stereotyping involved, maybe Nisbet is not the only culprit.

Nisbet has responded to the row by saying that he is not a racist and the cartoons were not intended to be.

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

One email complainant expressed "disgust" that the cartoon appeared in The Press and said "no quality newspaper should support" such stereotypical imagery.

Even if the stereotypes were there, that complaint fails to take into account the proper role of editors. They are just that - editors - and they are not censors. Part of our role is to allow publication of a wide range of views, even those which approach the extreme ends of the spectrum. The bounds of acceptability are often blurry. Our society is geared up, hopefully, to deal with that.

The real danger lies in cutting off free speech. If an individual editor of a newspaper like The Press, which dominates the public debate in print and increasingly online within its circulation area, were to reject publication of views that she personally did not agree with, then discourse on any subject would be extremely limited.

As readers and sometimes participants in that debate, you have to ask yourself, is that really what you want?

Minto, even while decrying the cartoon's appearance, seems to have acknowledged the value of it being published.

"We are pleased the cartoon is out there because these views are best dealt with out in the open rather than festering in private," he said.

Press editor Joanna Norris pointed out that 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.

That also raises another salient point. It is unfair to criticise a newspaper for publishing one view, without taking into account the diverse other views it might have published on the same subject.

In any case, Nisbet seems to be off the hook on the racism charge because Devoy told reporters yesterday that the cartoon does not meet the Human Rights Commission's threshold for racism.

She has declared it to be offensive, however.

On that score, Nisbet is supported by successive rulings of the Press Council, which has said consistently that cartoonists are entitled to be offensive to get their message across.

The council has said in a recent case, involving a Malcolm Evans cartoon which compared Israel's policies towards Palestinians to apartheid, that cartoonists have the right to express their views, even if they "provoke or upset".

In respect of another cartoon which addressed child abuse by members of the Catholic Church, the council said: "Cartoonists must be allowed to challenge and confront, which at times may cause offence. Freedom of expression means that the view being expressed does not have to be one that a reader agrees with, but rather allows the cartoonist to express his own view."

Again, in respect of a cartoon depicting Social Development Minister Paula Bennett with Nazi concentration camp doctor Josef Mengele (when she offered long-term female beneficiaries free contraception), the Press Council said: "They [cartoonists] can be provocative, thought-provoking, amusing, unkind or indeed offensive."

Complainants have asked if Nisbet's depictions of white people are as bad as they think he has been towards Polynesians or Maori.

Having looked at hundreds of Nisbet cartoons over the past decade, I can personally vouch for the fact that he is even-handedly nasty towards everyone.

The real shame about the row that blew up around the country yesterday is that people seemed to have missed Nisbet's point.

While people were debating whether or not Nisbet and The Press were being racist, relatively few were getting angry about the issue he was trying to highlight - that because of parental failings, thousands of children in this country are going to school with empty bellies.

Yesterday's outrage was misdirected.

LETTERS TO THE EDITOR

I am gobsmacked that Al Nisbet would draw and you would publish the racist, beneficiary-bashing cartoon in today's paper (May 30). How does this illuminate the current debate of hungry children, school feeding programmes, poverty, low wages and unemployment?

Sure, cartoonists are the jesters of modern democracy and we need their off-the-wall perspectives. Sometimes, however, such images feed the worst aspects of our communal psyche - and this is one of them.

Let's all be for freedom of expression - but it might have helped if some Germans had spoken out against the anti-Semitic racist propaganda Josef Goebbels and the Nazis published in the 1930s. Eugenicists just love the idea of feckless ferals on the take.

JEFFREY PAPAROA HOLMAN

Edgeware

I am appalled and embarrassed that The Press would sanction the Nisbet cartoon (May 30).

The Lotto ticket, beer, fags, and over-sized people depicts stereotyping of the worst kind. Might I remind you, on behalf of many, poverty is not always about poor parenting skills and can be attributed to poor National governance skills that focus on protecting the high income population.

Look around you, do some research and focus on the percentage increase in rental and infrastructure against wages in the past 30 years. If this country focused on helping the low-income population we may find poverty eliminated.

Shame on you Press.

K WHITLA

Cracroft

The Nesbit cartoon (May 30) takes an unfair swipe at a struggling section of our society caricaturing it in a way which reflects the widely held views of many who are fortunate enough to have no first-hand understanding of a life in poverty.

It lacks both humour and wit and undermines the work of the many people who have campaigned vigorously for the children who are going hungry.

No doubt there are families like the ones portrayed in this way who will free-load but as long as the many children who need this support get it, who cares? We need to fix this problem before dealing with the causes.

MARIE WOODS

Bishopdale

- The Press

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