Fraser Nelson Fraser Nelson

In defence of Martin Rowson

Martin Rowson's original cartoon in the Guardian (Credit: The Guardian)

Being a cartoonist is a high-risk job nowadays. Your job is to satirise and caricature, to exaggerate bodily features. Every week, we do this at The Spectator in our cover art drawn by the peerless Morten Morland. Kim Jong Un is rather short: Morten makes him minuscule. Donald Trump has small hands and feet; Morten shrinks them even further.

If someone has a prominent feature, then you exaggerate the feature. It’s the way cartooning works. If the subject has slightly big ears, you make them massive – as we have for the King in our coming coronation cover. It’s comic, teasing and, yes, sometimes brutal. But if you do this to a religious figure or an ethnic minority, you can be easily accused of bigotry. As the Guardian has just found out.

Rowson made an honest mistake, but he’s no anti-Semite – and no one is pretending otherwise

I had no idea that Richard Sharp, who last week quit as BBC chairman, is Jewish. I do know him a bit: we’re both on the board of the Centre for Policy Studies but I didn’t and would not expect to know if he is Jewish any more than he’d know what I get up to on Sunday mornings. Martin Rowson did know, having been to school with Sharp, but fatally gave this no thought when drawing the cartoon that has landed the Guardian in such trouble. To lampoon a Jewish man with a squid, Goldman Sachs box etc is obviously beyond what anyone (I suspect Rowson himself) would regard as acceptable. But this did not occur to Rowson or, I suspect, to anyone else at the Guardian who saw that cartoon. The idea that anyone at this newspaper was cackling at an anti-Semitic joke is plainly absurd: they will be as horrified as Rowson now is at this simple, explainable and tragic mistake.

So why was it drawn that way? Sharp used to be Rishi Sunak’s boss at Goldman Sachs – which is why Rowson added a Goldman Sachs-branded box in the illustration, with a miniature Sunak inside it. The bank was famously derided as an omnipresent ‘vampire squid sucking the face of humanity’ (a famous reference Guardian readers know and love) which is why Rowson depicted a squid in a box Sharp is carrying. Sharp is stonkingly rich and helped to arrange an £800,000 loan for Boris Johnson but failed to properly disclose that when Johnson made him BBC chairman. Should Sharp have disclosed this to the parliamentary committee? Of course. His failure to do so led to his resignation.

All this is rich material for any satirist, especially one on the left. So Rowson depicted all of this in a cartoon (above) in which Sharp’s face is a tiny part. It’s not a sympathetic portrayal: he looks like a venal millionaire, which is consistent with the Guardian’s line and Rowson’s oeuvre. So Rowson’s explanation, which he has given at length, makes sense:

I was trying to draw him looking silently furious, by implication with Johnson, in the standard caricatural way common to all political cartoons of exaggerating various of his features (most prominently, I thought, his large forehead and rather hooded, baggy eyes). I thought, at the time, it was a fairly mild caricature compared with how I’d draw Johnson. But I’d also never drawn Sharp before, so maybe overworked it to satisfy myself I’d ‘caught him; in David Low’s famous phrase, made him look more like him than he does.

As an editor of a magazine that runs humour and satire, I’ve been through similar storms over the years. Cartoons can now cause more controversy than any story. Post-Charlie Hebdo the police even came to visit me to explain that I am now deemed a terrorist target due to the fact that we publish satire. But cartoonists lampoon everyone and everything and have done for centuries: if you self-censor through fear of a mob, then satire bows to the mob. To run satire means you are likely to be the target of outrage squads who deploy various misrepresentation techniques. A zoomed-in clip of Sharp was passed around Twitter, for example, out of context from the overall image. A Twitter storm then started, as they often do in holiday weekends.

Twitter storms tend to have five stages. 1) General, often confected outrage 2) Someone in public office joins in, making it a reportable news story 3) The target can make the mistake of responding, either with a statement or by removing the offending joke/cartoon, thinking it will relieve rather than add pressure 4) A resignation hunt then starts – especially if a publication’s staff join in the attack until 5) Someone is fired, to assuage the mob, usually because the commercial people (who have less stomach for fights) say it’s damaging business.

At The Spectator, we’re lucky. We’re family-owned, so don’t have woke shareholders worrying about their Twitter feeds. When advertisers were persuaded by Twitter trolls to boycott us due to a Matthew Parris article on trans issues, Andrew Neil banned the advertiser. I often think of the protection that the model of family ownership offers against such forces: what publication, anywhere, has actually banned advertisers?

The biggest, greatest publications in the world have ended up yielding to the trolls. Twitter storms led to Kevin Myers being fired as a Sunday Times columnist, Ian Buruma as editor of the New York Review of Books, Kelvin MacKenzie from the Sun, Iain Macwhirter from the Herald and many more. Even David Remnick, one of the most successful magazine editors ever, had to cancel his interview with Steve Bannon after a Cat-4 Twitter storm.

But what’s odd, with the Rowson row, is seeing those who normally abhor cancel culture getting stuck in now that the victim is the Guardian. Yes, this fraction of this cartoon can be made to look very bad if cropped in a certain way – but does anyone seriously, genuinely believe that Rowson was motivated by anti-Semitism? Or think that the squid he drew was not the ‘vampire squid’ of lore but in fact a cunning, dog-whistle reference to a notorious Nazi squid cartoon from 1938?

The cartoon certainly was dangerously open to misinterpretation. Like most editors, I like to think our checks would have spotted this. But systems sometimes fail: that’s an occupational hazard in publishing. Penalties for these failures are higher in the digital age. To complain about it would be like a ship’s captain complaining about the sea.

This risk has emerged since I have been editor and adapting to that risk is now a major part of our editing furniture at The Spectator. In a digital age where jokes are twisted and fed into a confected-outrage machine, the editing process must now mean more checks, minimising scope for the misinterpretations of jokes while protecting the range and daring of the publication. And protecting our contributors, who cannot be expected to see everything they draw or write through the perspective of their most twisted critic. We don’t want them to worry about the mad world out there, or the new tactics used by the outrage squad (using headline screengrabs, no links, making sure context is not given etc).

We have a system of checking for this, of recognising when a topic (jihadi finance, climate change, trans, religion) is in a high-risk category. We then go through it from a prosecutorial point of view, trying to anticipate the inevitable IPSO complaint, misleading screen-grab or malicious misinterpretation. It’s important that these checks are done after the work is submitted as we don’t want writers choking their art by trying to think of what trolls might say. Anyone who crafts every sentence worried about being ratioed on Twitter ceases to become a writer. Our red-team process is intended to protect our writers and readers, so the new era of online madness makes no impact on the boldness, humour or cartoons of The Spectator.

Such systems are needed, now, to protect anyone who publishes satire or against-the-grain comment. This involves lots of borderline decisions. If you’re too censorious, you rob your publication of its edge and identity. If you’re too lax, you risk stumbling into battles that you cannot win. Cartoonists are very aware of this risk, and most would acknowledge a caricature of anyone of an ethnic minority background is high risk. This process is not watertight. Such slips are inevitable, but when they happen, perspective is needed. There’s a difference between a cartoon slip made in good faith and catching the Guardian staff in a secret screening of Triumph of the Will.

The Spectator’s cartoon editor, Michael Heath, has been drawing cartoons since the 1950s and speaks eloquently about how dangerous it has now become. The more censorious society becomes, the greater flak comics, satirists and cartoonists come under. Twitter has put rocket boosters on this trend as it allows the selective editing of jokes or cartoons to fuel its outrage machine. So people in Pakistan can now see cartoons published in Denmark and protest accordingly. Charlie Hebdo changed the debate once again. We can see, here, attempts to install a secular sharia: to put certain religious figures and themes beyond depiction or satire.

And we can see paler reflections of this in the hounding of other satirists. Mark Knight, an acclaimed Australian cartoonist, had to go into hiding after a Level-3 Twitter storm over his Serena Williams cartoon. It took an adjudication by the Australian Press Council to show that he was not referencing Jim Crow cartoons in his cartoon of her. His Serena was uncontroversial to those who know his style (he’s famous in Australia) but was seen as racist by those in the UK and US. Knight ended up having to move house for his own safety. When satirists and cartoonists end up being targeted in this way, anyone who values free speech ought to be concerned – regardless of what political side you are on.

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And yes, the Guardian would have joined the pile-on if this were any other newspaper in any other country. No other publication gives such energetic coverage to Twitter storms over cartoons: in the Times, New York Post, Boston Herald etc. Only last week, the Guardian was covering a Twitter storm over a Der Spiegel cartoonist. But those who deplore all this should not join the pile-on now just because the Guardian itself lies at the centre. Back to Rowson:

The cartoon was a failure and on many levels: I offended the wrong people, Sharp wasn’t the main target of the satire, I rushed at something without allowing enough time to consider things with the depth and care they require, and thereby letting slip in stupid ambiguities that have ended up appearing to be something I never intended.

He made a terrible but honest mistake. Rowson is no anti-Semite and no one is seriously pretending otherwise. If the Guardian didn’t spot this, that’s in part because we’re moving towards a liberal era where people are less obsessed by faith, sexuality and other such identity markers that the people themselves never mention. When I first came to London 25 years ago, I was shocked to find out people did make mental lists of who in public life is Jewish and who was not. Happily, now, almost no one gives it a second thought. Which was Rowson’s undoing, in this case.

He’ll feel awful about this. Any cartoonist would. He has become the latest victim of a trend in digital life where cartoonists are flayed, apologies are not accepted and forgiveness is not offered. No one who cares about satire and its role in our public debate should draw any satisfaction from the storm he now finds himself in.


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