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 The cartoon was withdrawn, and Rowson took a break, but not before writing about the sequence of events and offering a genuine apology:

Satirists, even though largely licenced to speak the unspeakable in liberal democracies, are no more immune to fucking things up than anyone else, which is what I did here. I know Richard Sharp is Jewish; actually, while we’re collecting networks of croneyism, I was at school with him, though I doubt he remembers me. His Jewishness never crossed my mind as I drew him as it’s wholly irrelevant to the story or his actions, and it played no conscious role in how I twisted his features according to the standard cartooning playbook.

For this I apologise, though I’m not going to repeat the current formulation by saying I’m sorry if people were upset, which is always code for “I’ve done nothing wrong, you’re just oversensitive”. This is on me, even if accidentally or, more precisely, thoughtlessly.

Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa. To work effectively, cartoons almost more than any other part of journalism require eternal vigilance, against unconscious bias as well as things that should be obvious and in this case, unforgivably, I didn’t even think about.

Today he has written a very personal account of the row in the Guardian. He outlines the principles he uses when working:

I should never attack anyone less powerful than me.

I should never attack people for what they are – their ethnicity, gender or sexuality – only for what they think and do.

And should I ever offend anyone I hadn’t targeted I should always apologise.

He refers to the everyday things that can portray the “banality of evil”, and of the ambiguity of cartoons.

What I do, in truth, is a twisted and dangerous magic, and it needs to be practised with extreme care.

The business of satire has never been to give indiscriminate offence and nor is it my job.

It is really worth reading his article in full. It has greatly increased my respect for Martin Rowson, who has had the grace to examine what he did in depth and then both apologise and seek to atone, even if I still don’t much like the style of his cartoons.


* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Tristan Ward 27th Jul '23 - 3:04pm

    Not sure about not attacking some one just because they are weaker than you are. What matters is whether that person has said or done something that is foolish. This is politics for goodness sake. And if someone puts themselves up in the political arena being attacked goes with the territory for better or worse.

    What is not be acceptable is bullying and abuse of the more powerful position. Difficult to know where the line should go in many cases.

  • David Rogers 28th Jul '23 - 7:59am

    Notwithstanding the seriousness of the issue described by Mary Reid, her first paragraph reminded me of my own local example. In 1988 my family moved to Newhaven, owing to my then-wife’s work. I had already represented a Brighton division on East Sussex CC since 1977, but informed colleagues there that I would not seek re-election in 1989. Later I decided to stand against the locally well-known Conservative member for Newhaven, Lieutenant-Colonel Howard-Harwood (retired). During the ensuing campaign, he published a cartoon in one of his leaflets depicting me as “the carpetbagger from Brighton”. With somewhat mixed emotions, I contacted him offering to purchase the original, for a donation to a charity of his choice, but this offer was rebuffed. However, the people of Newhaven were unimpressed by his tactics, and on the first Thursday in May I was duly elected by a comfortable margin. I continued to represent Newhaven for the next 24 years, until deciding to retire in 2013.

  • David Garlick 28th Jul '23 - 10:22am

    Thanks Mary.
    Thought provoking.

  • Martin Rowson‘s thinking behind the cartoon and the critics response raise an interesting and important point about our memory and what we (the general public) should remember and what it is okay to forget.

    Personally, and probably like the vast majority of the population, not being that interested in the minutiae of Nazi anti-semitism (“WWII was well before my time”) I wasn’t aware of the “well known tropes” and if asked would have difficulty reading (or misreading depending on viewpoint) the symbolism in the depiction of Richard Sharp.

    Thus, as noted, it is easy to apply the normal “standard cartooning playbook” and upset someone who has a particular memory and understanding (but would probably enjoy similar depictions of someone belonging to a different religious group), because (and as time goes by it will increasingly become the norm) people will not have been exposed to the original propaganda images. So the question is how much should we be refreshing public memories at the level of detail the critics raised here.

  • Peter Hirst 28th Jul '23 - 1:42pm

    Was the cartoon in question reviewed before publication. If not why not? If it was then they should carry some responsibility. Media have plenty of managers that moderate content. Cartoons are no different and causing offence effects people and should be avoided.

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