What do political cartoons do? Many of us would probably like to answer that a good political cartoon causes truths to be revealed, policies to change, and corrupt governments to collapse.
Unfortunately this isn’t always the case, but by no means is satire a negligible force in public debate. It’s well known that American youth have shunned "serious" news services for Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, and Judith Brett — one of Australia’s most eminent political scientists — dates the moment of inevitability for the fall of John Howard to the Chaser stunt at APEC.
The last few years have been big for cartoon controversies in Australia and around the world. In 2004, there was a public backlash when it looked like political cartoonists would be muzzled under the new sedition laws. Then there was the international uproar over the Danish cartoons of Muhammad, and before that settled, relations between Australia and Indonesia were sorely tested by a typically tasteful Bill Leak cartoon depicting the Indonesian President sodomising a Papuan. Then the Sydney Morning Herald refused to run an only slightly scatological Leunig cartoon about John Howard, perhaps using "taste" as a cover for political sensitivity.
Most recently, a New York Post cartoon depicting a chimp has caused uproar in the US. A pet chimp, which had that week gone wild and been shot by the police, was depicted in the cartoon with a voice bubble that said, "They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill."
Outraged commentators accused cartoonist Sean Delonas of portraying President Obama as a chimp, and labelled it a racist slur on African-Americans. Perhaps you have to be American to see it that way — the chimp is way too heavy in the waist and the jowls to suggest Obama to me — but the point is not that there are no right and wrong interpretations of cartoons, so much as more or less incendiary interpretations. My guess is that Delonas thought he was saying that the financial stimulus bill is so badly written, it must have been written by a monkey. However, according to the rules of his art, he can’t stop people from giving it another context, and thereby being offended by it.
What this all points to is a growing sensitivity to the potential impact of cartoons on public debate. Maybe that is because they are becoming one of the last redoubts for undisciplined, unspun commentary.
Cartoons are the last surviving anti-spin and shaming devices in the mainstream media at a time when spin and shamelessness are a ballooning influence in public life. Think everything from Big Brother to the AWB inquiry, Shane Warne to weapons of mass destruction. Cartoonists have increasingly been embroiled in storms over free speech and pressure from governments, corporations and opinion-makers to control the message.
One of the best examples was the response to the Tampa crisis of 2001, and the subsequent incarceration of asylum seekers. Every one of the hundreds of cartoons we have seen on the topic (in tabloid and broadsheet, metropolitan and regional papers) has advocated more humane treatment for refugees, and none has shown any tolerance of the subtle legalisms spread by ministers and their bureaucrats. Their unanimity clearly had little impact on public opinion, which remained broadly opposed to "illegal immigrants". Still, cartoonists were the most ungovernable part of the media on this topic, and remain so. At the very least, they provided support and consolation to those opposed to the policy of mandatory detention and its media-managed execution.
Governments have learnt the lessons of Vietnam and Watergate, corporations the lesson of big tobacco; even churches are beginning to learn the lesson of the Hollingworth saga. We are reaching a stage where the old light bulb joke could be reworked as: "How many investigative journalists does it take to write a story? One, plus 24 public relations officers and four beautifully presented, if mendacious, information packages."
Cartooning is one of the final frontiers free of product placement and message control. Perhaps if the Liberal Party could convince cartoonists to depict Malcolm Turnbull in an open-necked shirt without the top hat, his leadership might yet be saved. Bankers depicted without suits and fat cigars might also restore public faith in the finance industry.
These, fortunately, are ridiculous plans. Any competent editor knows that a cartoonist’s only real responsibility is to be funny and interesting without breaking any laws. The great New Zealand-born cartoonist David Low even managed to get himself onto the Gestapo’s hit-list after the invasion of England by dint of his cartoons attacking Hitler in the 1930s. No amount of Foreign Office pressure on the Evening Standard could get him to tone them down or Lord Beaverbrook to silence him.
The last Australian media proprietor to direct a cartoonist to a topic was Frank Packer back in the 1940s, and the cartoonist, Will Mahoney, preferred to be sacked rather than follow orders. Such fearlessness is now the stuff of legend, and the independence of the cartoonist is widely established in Western nations. No sensible editor tries to tell cartoonists how to frame their jokes and do their job.
This doesn’t mean that newspapers must accept whatever cartoon their artist offers. That would amount to the same level of unqualified privilege enjoyed by members of parliament. Editors can nag cartoonists, refuse particular cartoons, and sack recalcitrants. This is all perfectly sensible and legitimate, but it’s also a slippery slope of pressure that must be constantly negotiated.
As far as one can tell from electoral commission surveys, individual cartoons by Leunig and Leak have been about as uninfluential on voters as opinion pieces by Robert Manne and Andrew Bolt. But over time, they mark the ethos of the papers they appear in, and colour the views of loyal readers — they simplify so seductively that they can get around the critical faculties we normally activate while reading.
But cartoonists are no more likely to be right all the time than prime ministers or CEOs, so we should read cartoons critically, even if we are delighted by them. It’s fine to be a fan of Leunig, for example, but unwise to consider him a prophet. Still, at least cartoonists are free to be contrary and difficult. The pressures out there to make us all disciplined team players has not yet overwhelmed them.
The spin doctors have no doubt noticed what cartoonists can add to an argument — how they can broach difficult issues with an image and a few words; and how they can ridicule people, attitudes, and even that holy-of-holies, the brand. PR professionals are bright and well-resourced, and may already be thinking of ways to cultivate such influential opinion-molders.
Product placement in cartoons? It is disturbingly possible.
Cartoonists and their editors are warned: be on your guards. And we, as citizens and lovers of political cartoons, should ensure that we support them in their daily battle to make public life just a bit more honest.
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