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The importance of political cartoons in a liberal democracy

Years ago a cartoon of me was published in a local newspaper. Those were the days when the local press was actually local and effective, with reporters who turned up at events and interviewed people. It was a gentle depiction of my curly hair in a Council meeting. I rather enjoyed the fact that I had been portrayed in this way. But that is not really what political cartooning is about – if it had done its job properly I should have been angry.

We expect our cartoonists to speak truth to power, and that should make their targets uncomfortable. The great political cartoonists – Ronald Searle, Gerald Scarfe, Steve Bell, Peter Brookes, Matt – satirise the rich and powerful, focusing on greed, corruption and hypocrisy. But there is a line between satire that is biting and satire that is cruel, between images that are shocking and images that are pointlessly savage. Not surprisingly cartoonists sometimes cross that line.

Which brings us to Martin Rowson. Some weeks ago he drew a cartoon in the Guardian that showed Richard Sharp leaving the BBC with his cardboard box of belongings. It had Rowson’s characteristic elements, including a naked Boris Johnson sitting on a large pile of poo, but he was roundly condemned for something else. Critics claimed that the depiction of Sharp was anti-semitic, and included well known tropes including exaggerated features, references to banking and objects such as a squid, recalling Nazi images of Jews in the 1940s.

Now I don’t particularly like Rowson’s style, but what he does is important. Of course, he can expect backlash from time to time, but it was clear that he had crossed that line on this occasion. The cartoon was withdrawn, and Rowson took a break, but not before writing about the sequence of events and offering a genuine apology:

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