Cartoon and illustration fans can thank The Sunday Telegraph’s Jesse Phillips for Robert Crumb cancelling his trip to Australia by taking an Attorney-General’s department statement out of context and seeking dangerous comments by an extreme organisation.

“A self-confessed pervert whose explicit comic drawings cannot be shown in Australia is to deliver a talk and hold a special exhibition at the Sydney Opera House,” the article opened.

It then went on explaining that his visit has “sparked outrage” and that “s-xual assault crisis groups describing the France-based American artist as ‘sick and deranged’ and his illustrations are the “depraved thought processes of this very warped human being”.

The “outraged” group (not groups) is none other than Hetty Johnston, head of Bravehearts and also the group responsible for the “outrage” at photographer Bill Henson.

The reclusive Crumb, most famous for his Keep on Truckin’ comics, rarely leaves his house in France and has never been to Australia. In a statement provided to The Sydney Morning Herald Crumb explained that the Phillips article made him fear for his safety.

”What if I’d gone there and what if some Mark Chapman-type person who’d read that article decided that the world needed to be cleansed of scum like R. Crumb? … This was one possibility that worried Aline [Crumb’s wife] deeply.”

His presence at the Sydney Opera House Graphic Festival was nothing short of a coup for director Jordan Verzar. The second year running, Graphic has become the envy of the comic book world, blending illustration and cartoon literature with live music, sound and film.

Yesterday, The Sunday Telegraph attempted to justify the printing of Phillips’ article in a piece entitled “Freedom of speech not just for Crumb”. “Let’s strip away the histrionics and hyperbole,” it says.

In the original article, Phillips reported that the “Attorney-General’s department told The Sunday Telegraph that Crumb’s work cannot be shown in Australia unless he submits his illustrations for classification. The spokesman said his work would almost certainly be refused classification”.

Crikey has been provided with the Attorney-General’s answers to Phillips’ questions. They state that “the Classification Act provides that only certain publications are required to be submitted for classification”.

It goes on to explain that these “submittable publications” are those types of “publications that contain depictions or descriptions that are either likely to cause the publication to be classified Refused Classification, or are likely to cause offence to a reasonable adult to the extent that the publication should not be sold or displayed as an unrestricted publication, or are unsuitable for a minor to see or read”.

No ruling was made by the department in relation to Crumb’s work as Phillips’ article claims.

Phillips’ piece is the very worst sort of journalism, wheeling out a predictable response from Johnston. Talk about histrionics and hyperbole.

The Sunday Telegraph yesterday framed its response on the morals of free speech, stating that “readers of this newspaper are savvy enough to understand the complexities of questions of art and free speech”.

It’s a fair point but readers also expect journalists to quote government departments correctly and to take a wide range of opinions and not just from extreme groups.

The real shame is that there were no complexities present in Phillips’ original piece and the real losers in this whole debacle are Crumb’s fans.

All classification decisions in Australia are made by the Classification Board upon receipt of a valid application.  To preserve the integrity of this process, the department would not speculate on possible classification.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey