In April, the international edition of The New York Times published a controversial cartoon. It showed a blind Donald Trump, wearing a skullcap, being led by a guide dog – which had the face of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The President’s son, Donald Trump Jr, condemned the cartoon for “flagrant anti-Semitism”. Within hours the NYT apologised. Weeks later, the international NYT announced it would no longer publish cartoons.
Most cartoonists agreed that the image was ill-judged but said the saga amounted to an attack on political satire. The Guardian’s Martin Rowson denounced the NYT for its “cowardice, pomposity, overreaction and hypocrisy”.
Then, in July, The Guardian’s Steve Bell sent an email to staff at the newspaper saying that editors had refused to publish one of his cartoons depicting Netanyahu. “Does The Guardian no longer tolerate content that runs counter to its editorial line?” he asked.
|Donald Trump by Dave Brown|
Should cartoonists be free to draw what they like?
While many like to think of themselves as independent, newspapers are within their rights to control what runs in their pages.
The commercial viability of a newspaper is dependent on keeping readers on side. It is crucial they do not publish cartoons seen as tasteless.
But the debate about offensiveness has become more loaded in the last few years, arguably thanks to the rise of social media.
|Theresa May by Ben Jennings|
“Increasingly, people seem to believe they have a right not to be offended, and that anything that more than one person finds offensive should be censored,” says Dave Brown of The Independent.
“I, on the other hand, believe everybody should be offended at least once a day, preferably by one of my cartoons. It’s good to be unsettled, tipped out of our comfort zones and made to think.”
|Esther McVey by Dave Brown|
The most fraught issue for cartoonists is race. Cartooning remains disproportionately white (and male), but most artists now put great thought into portraying people of all races with sensitivity, and without invoking harmful stereotypes. Some still struggle to get this balance right.
When the Australian artist Mark Knight, who depicted Serena Williams jumping angrily up and down at the US Open last year, the National Association of Black Journalists in the US said it was “repugnant on many levels”. Knight responded that it was merely about Williams’ “poor behaviour on the court”.
|Boris Johnson by Peter Schrank|
It seems that cartoonists aren’t as independent as they like to think, sometimes for good reasons. Nonetheless, we can be sure that they will continue to push the boundaries of good taste, and in the process challenge their readership and their editors.
A hilarious companion to the year’s political turmoil, featuring the work of Martin Rowson, Steve Bell, Peter Brookes, Nicola Jennings and many more . . .
2019 was the year of Brexit, obviously. But it was also the year that Donald Trump went haywire over Huawei, Nigel Farage met his match (a milkshake), Theresa May got bounced by the backstop, and Boris Johnson was hoisted into high office.
In Britain’s Best Political Cartoons 2019, our very finest satirists skewer everything from Kremlin collusion to no-deal confusion, offering a riotous ride through the last twelve months. And did we mention Brexit?