Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: Political round-up: Reactionary cartoons and outrage

Photo / Sarah Ivey
Photo / Sarah Ivey

Liberals are understandably up in arms about the Al Nisbet cartoons on the food in school programme.

You can see the cartoons, plus more in my blog post, Images of the Food in Schools debate. And you can read some of the most interesting, insightful, silly, and amusing reactions to the cartoons in Top tweets about the Food in Schools cartoons.

The most amusing satirical take on the issue is The Civilian's Vulgar cartoon offends everyone equally. But by far the strongest defence of the cartoons has come from Colin Espiner in his blogpost, Cartoons that make you think. He concludes: 'it's a cartoonist's job to offend people. To needle, provoke, outrage, exasperate, annoy, and entertain. To make you think. And Al Nisbet has done just that'. A similar defence is made by the Deputy Editor of The Press, Ric Stevens in an in-depth explanation of his decision to publish the Nesbit cartoon yesterday - see: Cartoon row misses the point.

Perhaps the most thoughtful commentary and discussion is made by Tim Watkin in his blogpost, Offensive cartoons are OK, lazy & bullying ones are not. On the one hand, Watkin criticises the cartoon in strong terms and points out its failings. But he also says: 'I struggle with the word offensive, however, because cartoonists are supposed to get under our skins and use visual hyperbole to tell a truth. Heck, cartoonists, like good columnists and sketch writers should sometimes offend - our sensibilities, our tastes and even our ethics'. Similarly, David Farrar is highly critical of the cartoons, but says, 'I suspect what many hate about it, isn't the skin colour of two of those featured, but the political message the cartoon sends. I wonder how many of them complained when a cartoonist compared Paula Bennett to Josef Mengele, because she (shock horror) supported free contraception for beneficiaries?' - see: The Nisbet cartoon.

The most outraged critic of Nesbit's cartoons is Martyn Bradbury, who has been energetically blogging and tweeting about the injustice of the cartoons. His two recent posts are: If you don't think the cartoons are racist - you are part of the problem and The NZ Press Council double standards are as racist as Al Nisbet's cartoons. In his normal 'bombastic' style, Bradbury makes the strongest case against the cartoons, seeing no shades of grey in the debate, and essentially challenges any opponents to show that they're not racists themselves.

The next strongest reactions have been from MPs. National's Tau Henare says 'I'm angry, I've had enough, I've had a gutsful'. Maori Party MP Te Ururoa Flavell says 'get rid of it. Get it out of our newspapers'. The Greens have stated that the cartoons break the law, and that they 'incite hostility against people', with the suggestion therefore that they be banned. Metiria Turei has made an official complaint about the cartoon's alleged unlawfulness citing the Bill of Rights and Human Rights Act - see her blogpost, Devoy should investigate complaints not pretend they don't exist. Turei also responds to the cartoon issue with the question: Does our country really hate us?. And Labour's Rajen Prasad has blogged, Cartoons irresponsible and racist.

The Mana Party has criticized Susan Devoy's ruling on the cartoons, saying that 'She is showing a basic misunderstanding of the law and her role', and arguing that the 'cartoon does incite racial hatred' - see RadioLive's Press Council won't act over cartoons yet. Mana's Mike Treen has used the cartoons as a springboard to make the wider liberal-left case about the problem of prejudice in New Zealand - see: The cancer of racism is bad for all of us. And the No Right Turn blog is extremely critical of Devoy's response, suggesting that 'she's making excuses for racists' - see: Not doing her job. Toby Manhire takes a very different position, and salutes Devoy for making a stand on a cartoon that he calls 'contemptible' but not 'criminal' - see: At last, Devoy speaks out on race.

Other cartoonists are making some very interesting points about the cartoons and their own profession. The views of Tom Scott and Dylan Horrocks can be seen in Radio NZ's Cartoonists critical, but defend publication. Scott says dislikes the cartoons but defends Nisbet's freedom of speech, while Horrocks argues that cartoonists need to be more responsible.

So what should happen about the cartoons? Should they be banned? Maori Party MP Te Ururoa Flavell said the cartoon was 'racist, full stop', and 'In that case, get rid of it. Get it out of our newspapers and apologise, fess up and move on' - see: Herald: Cartoonist receives hate mail, support.

The Maori Council appears to favour the suppression of the cartoons - if not the newspapers themselves - based on the Radio NZ report, Maori Council judges cartoons as institutional racism. Maori Council co-chair Maanu Paul says the cartoons are 'an example of institutional racism', and he 'says institutions that wield power against defenceless children and the poor have no place in New Zealand society'. Furthermore, 'He says the cartoons clearly show a media institution exercising its power to force people to think like it does'.

Media commentator Jim Tully is extremely critical of the cartoons and of the newspapers' decision to publish them, saying that the 'freedom of speech' defence isn't valid: 'Tully said he would not have run the cartoons and he told Breakfast it's disingenuous to defend publishing them by saying "I'm an editor, not a censor". Defending freedom of speech is a cop-out, he said. "Every editor at some point is a censor."' - see TVNZ's Hate mail, support for controversial cartoonist. Gordon Campbell makes some similar points in a well-argued column, On racism, and the Nisbet cartoons.

Some are calling for the laws to be tightened about racism, because Devoy has said that the cartoons fail to meet the threshold of unlawfulness. Flavell is one of those, being reported as saying that he 'believes the definition of racism needs to be changed if it doesn't meet the required criteria' - see Newstalk ZB's Cartoon controversy: Maori MPs demand action.

Farrar in his post (The Nisbet cartoon) warns against this: 'I'm against any change to the threshold. The threshold for the state to actually prosecute people for what they say should be incredibly high.
If people don't like the cartoon, then they should express that to the newspaper. They can choose to boycott it. They can set up criticism sites. The best antidote to speech you don't like is more speech, not less speech'

Libertarian blogger Mark Hubbard argues that 'the sentiment of the cartoon might well be offensive, but the accusation is Nisbet is racist because he has only shown Maori in the cartoon', and this is unwarranted because clearly many of those using food in schools are indeed non-Pakeha, as evidence by a TV clip - see: Is Campbell Live Racist? ... That Al Nisbet Cartoon.

And Newstalk ZB's Barry Soper warns against getting in too much of a frenzy over the issue: 'if we were to take exception to everyone who was offended by a cartoonist poking the borax then the country would spend all it's time tied up in litigation. Certainly if politicians took exception to the constant, unflattering caricatures of them their skin would be transparent' - see: Impact of a cartoon.

There is no doubt that the cartoons - which have a reactionary message with strong racial characteristics - offend many. And a racist message can definitely be read in the images. But the issue seems to raise more difficult questions than simple black and white answers. Are the cartoons really beyond the pale? Is it 'hate speech'? Should it be banned or suppressed in any way? Do we expect cartoonists to reflect reality as they see it? Do we expect them to pock fun at figures and people in society? Are cartoonists allowed to be offensive? Do they need to avoid stereotypes in their portrayals?

But perhaps a more important question is: how do the cartoons measure up against the various political parties that campaign on race-related issues? Have the cartoons really been worse than the reactionary messages from, say, the Greens on foreign investment and land? Or more reactionary than Winston Peters' campaigns relating to Chinese immigrants? Or more reactionary than Labour's campaign use of the stereotyped bludging 'beneficiary on the roof'? In this regard, it's instructive to read Vernon Small's excellent explanation of Why parties tolerate latest Peters outburst. It seems that there is currently a lot of outrage about silly reactionary images at the moment, but very little outrage is directed at the actual reactionary policies of the political parties.

- NZ Herald

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Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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