The fact that Murdoch felt the need to apologise for Gerald Scarfe’s cartoon demonstrates the form’s enduring power
I greeted news of Rupert Murdoch’s apology for an allegedly antisemitic cartoon by Gerald Scarfe in the Sunday Times with a sigh of deep weariness. But before we get up to our oxters in the guts of my foul craft, let’s pick some of the bones out of this latest scandal. Note, first, that Murdoch’s apology was to Binyamin Netanyahu personally, as one member of the global elite showing solidarity to another. Remember, also, that Bibi is a favourite posterboy for Murdoch’s brand of neo-conservative cheerleading.
As to Scarfe’s cartoon specifically, it seems to me almost identical to every other blood-spattered pictorial lament for man’s inhumanity to man he’s knocked out over the past 40 years. Except in this case, because of the subject matter and the timing – on Holocaust memorial day – the trademark Scarfean gore could, if you chose, have wider ramifications. And so it has proved.
If, like me and other cartoonists, you’ve produced cartoons critical of the actions of the state of Israel and then received thousands of emails, most of which read “Fuck off you antisemitic cunt”, you tend to get a bit jaded. But over the years I’ve received similar responses – and worse, including death threats – from Muslims, Catholics, US Republicans, US Democrats, Serbs, atheists and the obese, as well as from supporters of Israel. After a while, the uniformity of the response can tempt you into thinking that this is all contrived and orchestrated, and certainly a lot of it is.
But then again, you may know that the standard complaint – “This is the most disgracefully antisemitic cartoon to be published since the closure of Der Stürmer” – can only be made because Julius Streicher’s foul Nazi rag regularly published the vilest antisemitic cartoons imaginable, which prepared the ground for and then cheered on the greatest crime in human history. In the long shadow of the Holocaust, perhaps it’s just about understandable – if not forgivable – that each time I drew Ariel Sharon, a fat man with a big nose, as being fat and having a big nose, it was therefore considered reasonable for me to be equated with mass murderers.
The responses, though, probably have more to do with the nature of the medium than its content. Visual satire is a dark, primitive magic. On top of the universal propensity to laugh at those in power over us, cartoons add something else: the capacity to capture someone’s likeness, recreate them through caricature, and thereby take control of them. This is voodoo – though the sharp instrument with which you damage your victim at a distance is a pen. None of this is benign. It’s meant to ridicule and demean, and almost all political cartooning is assassination without the blood.
But add to that the way we consume this stuff and you get the perfect recipe for offence. In newspapers, cartoons squat like gargoyles on top of the columns, and while you nibble your way through the columnists’ prose for several minutes, you swallow the cartoon whole in seconds. The internet has also changed things. British cartoonists find their work being consumed, via the web, by people in nations who haven’t had more than 300 years of rude portrayals of the elite.
When Steve Bell and I first had our cartoons for the Guardian published online, many Americans would recoil in horror at our depictions of their president. Steve and I got many emails pointing out that Bush was their head of state, deserved some respect, and then asked if we’d ever depict our royal family in the same disgraceful way.
At that point, of course, you pull back the curtain on Gillray’s depictions of George III shitting on the French fleet. Indeed, in the mid-1780s, the French ambassador warned Versailles that Britain was teetering on the verge of another revolution, 150 years after they’d last cut off their king’s head. His evidence? The kiosks stretching down the Strand, all selling satirical prints depicting the royals in the most disrespectful and disgusting ways imaginable.
That he was wholly wrong should, perhaps, give the armies of the offended pause, even if other cartoons – like the filth in Der Stürmer – have misused the voodoo.
You need, in the end, to apply the simple acid test for satire – as well as journalism: does it comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable? True, the Nazis used cartoons, but so has everyone else, from Stalin’s Soviet Union to Iran today.
And speaking of Nazis, Hitler was a huge fan of the Evening Standard’s David Low. The Express cartoonist Carl Giles, then a war cartoonist, was given a Luger as a souvenir by the Commandant of Belsen after its liberation because the man was a huge fan of his cartoons. Of course, after Hitler got into power and Low started, beautifully, to take the piss, Low, along with his cartooning colleagues Illingworth, Vicky and even Heath Robinson, was placed on the Gestapo’s deathlist. (In fact, Vicky got it from all directions: a cartoon for Beaverbrook’s Evening Standard in the 1950s calling for the abolition of the death penalty so enraged a doctor in Harrow that he wrote to the paper lamenting the fact that Vicky and his family managed to escape from Nazi Germany 25 years earlier.)
Which gets us back to Scarfe. As the Israeli paper Haaretz has already observed (arguing the cartoon isn’t antisemitic at all), if Scarfe had spent the last 50 years solely offending Israel, his critics might have a point. The fact is, he, like the rest of us, is there to offend everyone.