Serena Williams Mark Knight

The Australian Press Council’s adjudication published yesterday that the Herald Sun’s Serena Williams cartoon wasn’t racist has had many asking: if that doesn’t breach your standards, what does?

The cartoon by Mark Knight depicted Williams throwing a tantrum at the US Open last year, and was soon criticised around the world as echoing Jim Crow-era cartoons of African-Americans. But despite a near-uniform response (excluding News Corp) that the cartoon was offensive and racist, the Press Council ruled yesterday that it did not breach its standards.

It found that the cartoon was in the public interest, commenting on sportsmanship in a “significant dispute”, and that “significant latitude” can be given to cartoons in deciding whether they breach its standards:

The council considers that the cartoon uses exaggeration and absurdity to make its point but accepts the publisher’s claim that it does not depict Ms Williams as an ape, rather showing her as ‘spitting the dummy’, a non-racist caricature familiar to most Australian readers. Nonetheless, the council acknowledges that some readers found the cartoon offensive.

A spokeswoman told Crikey that she could not comment on specific cases, or on what a cartoon would need to look like in order to be found to be contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice. “The council considers complaints on a case by case basis,” she said in a statement. “As such we are not able to comment on what article or cartoon would be a breach of the council’s standards of practice in relation to race.”

The News Corp papers have taken to celebrating Knight as their latest victim of political correctness, in the same vein as the late Bill Leak, cartoonist for The Australian. The Herald Sun responded to the furore around the cartoon in a cover attacking censorship with the headline “Welcome to PC World”. Knight’s story also made the cover of an edition of Weekend Australian Magazine in January.

In 2016, a cartoon by Leak depicting an Indigenous father and son was the subject of more than 700 complaints to the Press Council, which decided not to adjudicate at all on the cartoon after The Australian published two opinion pieces about it. At the time, then-council chair David Weisbrot published a statement explaining the decision.

“Balancing all of these considerations, and after consulting with key complainants, the Press Council considers that the best outcome in the public interest is to promote free speech and the contest of ideas through the publication of two major op-ed pieces in The Australian, providing Indigenous perspectives on the cartoon and shedding light on the underlying issues,” Weisbrot said.

The Press Council had to go back to 2014 to find a cartoon concerning race that had been found in breach of its principles. A Glen le Lievre cartoon published in The Sydney Morning Herald, depicted a stereotypically Jewish man sitting in a chair with the Star of David on it and pointing a TV remote at an explosion in what was apparently Gaza. It sat alongside an opinion piece about the conflict in Gaza. The Press Council found that while there was a public interest in the story and cartoon, and the Israeli link to the story, there was undue emphasis on the Jewish faith:

A linkage with Israeli nationality might have been justifiable in the public interest, despite being likely to cause offence. But the same cannot be said of the implied linkage with the Jewish faith that arose from inclusion of the kippah and the Star of David.

In 2015, a cartoon (again by Leak) in The Australian that depicted destitute Indian people reacting to the UN Climate Change Conference was cleared, again, as a “an example of drawing on exaggeration and absurdity to make its point”.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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