The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by the publication of a cartoon by Warren Brown in The Daily Telegraph on 11 February 2019. The edition in which it appeared also had both a main story and an editorial on the Medivac debate. The cartoon depicted two figures running in a loop around the static figure of Kerryn Phelps, then the Member for the Federal seat of Wentworth. The figure at the front is a bearded man with a head covering, long tunic and sandals, chasing a female doctor or nurse wearing scrubs trailing a stethoscope and with a mobile phone and medicines being thrown up in the air as she appears to run away. Ms Phelps is holding a piece of paper with the words “MEDIVAC” written on it. Behind the scene the word “Nauru” appears and above the scene is a speech bubble with the words “Do you mind not doing that until I’ve got the bill passed?”. The cartoon appeared above an article by an opinion writer headed “Doctoring the system” with the subheading: “A Labor-backed plan would allow activists to effectively end offshore processing”.
In response to complaints received, the Council asked the publication to comment on whether the material breached its Standards of Practice which require it to take reasonable steps to avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest (General Principle 6). The Council noted that complaints had raised a number of concerns. First, that the depiction of the male character may be an offensive and prejudicial stereotype of Middle Eastern men generally. In particular the pointed sharp teeth with his mouth open to suggest hunger, his hands drawn extended as claws and a lascivious facial expression while chasing a white woman implied asylum seeking or Middle Eastern men are savages and a threat to white women. Second, it suggested that asylum seekers/Middle Eastern men should not be provided with medical intervention because they are dangerous. Third, that the depiction of the male character implies that the wider asylum seekers and Middle Eastern community are dirty, predators and dangerous, and could create fear in the community of all members of both Middle Eastern, Islamic and asylum seeker background. Fourth, they said the depiction is an archaic picture of a foreigner which draws similarities to World War Two propaganda posters and should be considered in the context of the history of caricatures based on race and historical racist depictions.
The publication said the cartoon must be seen as commentary on major front-page news of the day, which was dominating public political debate in the country. The publication said the cartoon referred to the case of an asylum-seeking man who had been transferred to Australia for medical treatment and had been charged with allegedly touching two nurses on the buttocks as he underwent treatment just over a week after his arrival. When the incident was reported to guards and the man was told of the complaint, the man allegedly threatened to assault both the nurses. Police were called and the man was arrested and charged with common assault, sexually touching a person without consent and stalking or intimidating with intent to cause fear or harm. The man was due to appear in court at about the time the article was published, which was also about the time a bill by Federal member Kerryn Phelps to make easier medical evacuation from Nauru was before the Federal Parliament. The story about the man was on the front page and page 5. The publication also published an Editorial in the same edition that commented on the security issues regarding medical transfers which were being debated publicly at the time and which the publication said demonstrates that the cartoon addressed issues of public interest.
The publication maintained that it was very much in the public interest to publish the cartoon because it brought a real-life example of issues raised in the Parliamentary debate. As such the cartoon – like all fine cartoons do – went to the very heart of the public debate that was under way and provided its commentary in the way that distinguishes cartoonists from those who provide their opinions solely in words.
The publication also said by the nature of their work, cartoonists are also opinion columnists who use images and brief words to summarise public events often with biting satire and political commentary. It said it is all too easy for critics to condemn such work and the expressing of an opinion when being ill informed and led by social media campaigns that are twisted to suit a certain viewpoint that would censor public discussion rather than allow debate on opinions that differ to those driving them. The publication said the cartoon did not breach General Principle 6 and drew the Council’s attention to previous Adjudications which acknowledged how public interest is served by cartoonists and their commentary on issues of public significance.
The publication said the cartoonist had written an article published on February 15 to explain the background to and substance of his cartoon.
The Council notes that cartoons are commonly expressions of opinion examining serious issues and which use exaggeration and absurdity to make their point. For this reason, significant latitude will usually be given in considering whether a publication has taken reasonable steps to avoid substantial offence, distress or prejudice in breach of General Principle 6. However, a publication can, in publishing a particular cartoon, still fail to take reasonable steps to avoid contributing to substantial offence, distress or prejudice without sufficient justification in the public interest and breach the General Principle.
The Council notes that in isolation the cartoon would certainly convey several offensive stereotypical inferences about asylum seeker men or men from the Middle East. However, the Council accepts it was in response to the charging of the man accused of sexual assault and intimidation and in the context of the political debate taking place about medical evacuation of asylum seekers. The Council considers the cartoon would be viewed in the context of the articles on the front page and page 5 about those events.
The Council notes that even when read in this context the cartoon still conveys a level of stereotypical offence and has a prejudicial inference that the man was guilty although not yet convicted. However, the Council accepts that there was sufficient public interest in commenting on the case of the man in the context of the charges against him and the political debate. The Council considers that to the extent there was substantial offence or prejudice caused it was justified in the public interest. As such, the Council does not consider that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid causing substantial offence, distress or prejudice, without sufficient justification in the public interest. Accordingly, the Council concludes that its Standards of Practice were not breached.
Relevant Council Standards:
This adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
“Publications must take reasonable steps to:
6. Avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.”