The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by the publication of a cartoon in The Australian on 2 June 2020. The cartoon depicts a person of colour dressed entirely in black, wearing a face mask and hat and only showing the figure’s eyes. The figure is kneeling on the neck of the Statue of Liberty which is lying on the ground next to a car that has the number plate USA. The cartoon depicts a scene of social unrest with buildings on fire and smoke in background. The figure is saying “I AM FIGHTING FOR THE RIGHT TO DO WHAT I HATE” while the words “I CAN’T BREATHE” emanate from the mouth of the Statue of Liberty.
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 concerns that the cartoon’s depiction of an African American engaged in act of violence is a deliberate misrepresentation of the events that have caused social unrest in America. Concern was expressed that the cartoon chose to depict an African American causing the social unrest when protests in the US have concerned police brutality inflicted on racial and ethnic minorities by mostly white police officers.
The publication said the cartoon was not a comment on the killing of George Floyd a week earlier or the peaceful protests, but the riots that followed. The publication said it is the ‘rioter’ depicted in the cartoon who is shown threatening the American ideals represented by the Statue of Liberty and the cartoon fairly depicts the destruction and arson that was happening that day in the US. The publication said that the cartoon concerns the rioter’s violence against the US and many of the communities most affected by police violence. The publication said that, in addition to more peaceful protests, instances of violence committed by people of all races had been widely reported. The publication said the point articulated by the accompanying words of the cartoon reflect the double standards of the rioters; their right to commit violence when the initial protests concerning George Floyd were ostensibly about violence and the impact that violence can have on their own communities.
The publication said the cartoon does not repurpose the image of the murder of an African American man to attack the victims of police brutality and racism. It makes a powerful point about Floyd’s killing being used by political forces and rioters to attack and threaten the ideals of the American dream. The publication drew attention to a similar cartoon by a respected cartoonist published in the US. The publication said that, while its cartoon was published in the early days of the public’s response to the death of George Floyd, the issues raised in the cartoon have become key flashpoints in the US presidential election and are of significant public interest in the US and, as a consequence, Australia and the world.
The publication said the cartoon reflected news being reported on the day, including a front-page news story which reported: ‘America is on the edge. It is a country in chaos, racked by violent protests from coast to coast with buildings aflame, police under angry attack and angry masses flooding the streets in the most serious threat to law and order in decades’.
The publication said the cartoon did not breach General Principle 6 and drew the Council’s attention to previous Adjudications which acknowledged how the public interest is served by cartoonists and their commentary on issues of public significance.
The Council has consistently expressed a view 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 the cartoon could certainly be seen as an offensive and prejudicial portrayal of protestors in the wake of the George Floyd protests, particularly given its depiction of an African-American man kneeling on the neck of the white Statue of Liberty and its use of the words “I CAN’T BREATHE”. However, the Council accepts it was in response to the riots a week after Floyd’s homicide and after the peaceful protests and in which violence was perpetrated by African Americans and other racial and ethnic minorities against their own communities. The Council considers that the cartoon would mostly be considered in the context of the articles about the riots on the front page and other pages, as well as the letters section above which the cartoon appeared.
The Council notes that unlike the similar US cartoon the publisher referred to, this cartoon did not clarify that the assailant was a looter and rioter nor did it portray the victim as communities but as the USA and the Statue of Liberty. Nonetheless the Council accepts that the message (‘I am fighting for the right to do what I hate’) was clearly about the hypocrisy of rioters and did not excuse police brutality or attacks on peaceful protesters.
While the Council accepts that some would be offended by this cartoon, it considers that it was sufficiently in the public interest to comment on the riots and the effects those riots had on the rioters’ own communities. 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.”