Cartoons can be a tricky issue for editors. It’s not enough that they should simply be funny, and indeed some of the best are not. To be truly effective, cartoons need an edge. They should be provocative.
Accordingly, editors need to cut cartoonists a lot of slack. They will sometimes publish cartoons they know some readers will find offensive, and that they may even find offensive themselves.
The Media Council, formerly the Press Council, takes a liberal view of cartoons (by which I mean liberal in the classical rather than the lame, woke sense) and so do the courts. When Labour MP Louisa Wall took the Otago Daily Times to court over two Al Nisbet cartoons which she considered racist, Justice Matthew Muir agreed that they were insulting but held that they didn’t breach the Human Rights Act.
Whatever you thought of the cartoons, the decision could only be seen as a victory for free speech and a defence of the right to upset people. Regardless of their ideological persuasions, cartoonists would very soon be extinct as a species if they were denied that right.
Having said all that, sometimes a paper publishes a cartoon that seems to strike a sour note with almost everyone. The Garrick Tremain cartoon published this week by the aforementioned ODT was such a cartoon.
It lamely attempted to make humour of the measles epidemic in Samoa. But the deaths of 55 children are no one’s idea of a joke and the cartoonist couldn’t even claim to be making a point. Both the editor of the paper and Tremain himself admit it was a bad lapse of judgment. Tremain says it was a limp joke but he can’t wind the clock back.
Will that satisfy the vigilantes crying out for utu? Not a chance. They won’t rest until they have someone’s head on a platter.
The ODT’s apology, they say, is not enough. It never is. Among other things, they want the paper’s staff to undergo racism training. But where does race enter into it? The cartoon would have been offensive regardless of the ethnicity of the measles victims.
Auckland University of Technology journalism lecturer Richard Pamatatau has joined the pile-on, saying the ODT has a history of publishing racist cartoons and Tremain should be dumped. I wonder, am I the only one troubled by the irony of a journalism lecturer calling for someone to be silenced?
Pamatatau says Tremain’s cartoons are not what cartoons are supposed to be, but he’s no more entitled to present himself as the arbiter of what cartoons should say than I am.
Bottom line: being offended from time to time is the price we pay for freedom of speech, a quid-pro-quo that most people in a liberal democracy are happy to accept.
I would certainly far prefer to go on being offended – as I often am by cartoonists – than concede to people like Pamatatau the right to determine what views I may be exposed to. Given a choice between bad taste and puritanical censorship, I’ll take the bad taste every time.
More thoughts on that Tremain cartoon
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Otago Daily Times cartoonist Garrick Tremain has been hung out to dry – or as seems to be the preferred metaphor these days, thrown under a bus.
I get the impression that Tremain now accepts that his cartoon making light of the Samoan measles epidemic was grossly insensitive. But he’s hardly the only person culpable.
All newspaper cartoons are supposed to be vetted by senior editorial people and we can assume that process was followed in this case, in which case editorial heads should be rolling too, metaphorically speaking.
The paper not only failed to see how wrong the cartoon was but also misjudged the public reaction, thinking it could get away with a low-key apology on page 10. The editor, Barry Stewart, has since tried to make amends by facing protesters yesterday and publishing a second mea culpa on the front page today.
But it’s Tremain who’s being made to bear the primary responsibility. Stewart says the cartoonist has been stood down while the ODT conducts a “review”, which sounds like a damage control exercise aimed at mollifying protesters in the hope that it will all blow over.
A particularly ignoble aspect of the controversy is the spectacle of a fellow cartoonist putting the boot in. Jim Hubbard has drawn not one but two cartoons taking a whack at Tremain, which strikes me as contemptible.
Hubbard’s cartoons are often close to the bone too, though at the opposite end of the political spectrum from Tremain’s, and it’s not hard to envisage circumstances in which he too might be publicly pilloried, in which case I’m sure he would appreciate a bit of solidarity.
As an aside, I can’t help wondering whether the ODT's display of tone-deafness over the Tremain cartoon is a Dunedin thing. No offence to the ODT – a paper for which I have great respect – or to the residents of that estimable city, but Dunedin is a bit isolated from the cultural mainstream and possibly not quite in tune with how issues are viewed in other parts of the country. Could that explain the ODT’s spectacular lapse of judgment?