Wednesday, December 4, 2019

That Garrick Tremain cartoon

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.


Jack said...

There is an appalling cartoon in this morning's Dompost (4.12.19) that as an enthusiast for free speech I found offensive. But I won't be complaining, my disappointment does not trump the cartoonist's right to offend me.
Jack Larson

Hilary Taylor said...

Quite right Karl. You mean the Murdoch one Jack? Exactly my thoughts...if $50k is due to the Samoans then the ACT pARTY merits a dollop too, by that shallow logic. Bit cross with Tremain...I mean, pretty much anyone would've judged it off-colour. It's barmy to call it's just tasteless. Bit cross because these people don't need ANY ammo.

Trev1 said...

Tremain's cartoon was in very bad taste. Hopefully he will learn that there is no humour to be had in an appalling and needless human tragedy. Sharon Murdoch's cartoon in today's Dompost about free speech was pure ignorance and an insult to all those who fought fascism in the Second World War. Hitler, whom Murdoch depicted, used the burning of the Reichstag in 1933 as a pretext for banning free speech. Have Ardern and her cheerleaders seized on the Christchurch tragedy as their Reichstag moment?

Lindsay Mitchell said...

I simply can't understand why this is funny. Unless Tremain had a bee in his bonnet on that particular day about over-privileged, toffee-nosed, blue-rinsers who have no idea about what is happening in Samoa let alone mean streets NZ.