Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Editing the editor

A fine row is brewing over Gerald Scarfe's cartoon in the latest Sunday Times

The offending drawing depicts the Israeli prime minister cementing what appear to be Palestinains into a wall with the caption 'will cementing peace continue?'. Arms, legs and heads protrude from between the bricks and Mr Netanyahu wields a blood-stained trowel. It's pretty typical Scarfe: a brutal caricature with a message that could easily be understood by a 12 year old, particularly one who knew that Israel had a general election just a few days earlier, which might have come up in his school current affairs lesson, and that Sunday was also Holocaust Memorial day, which might well have come up in his school current affairs lesson. 

A variety of Jewish bodies duly objected and the Sunday Times was reported to the Press Complaints Commission. That much was to be expected. The next step in the story was extraordinary. Rupert Murdoch, head of News Corporation, owner of the Times and Sunday Times, twittered that 'Gerald Scarfe has never reflected the opinions of the Sunday Times . . we owe [a] major apology for [the] grotesque, offensive cartoon'. Later the paper's editor (a new appointment, this was the poor man's first edition in charge), who before Murdoch's intervention had put out a standard defence of the cartoon as fair journalism of the type we should expect from Scarfe and that it was aimed at Netanyahu and the Israeli government rather than the Jewish people, was obliged to apologise profusely to the Jewish lobby and even Scarfe himself apologised for the timing, saying he was unaware that last Sunday was Holocaust memorial day. I confess I had assumed the timing was deliberate. Maybe Israel should not hold its election just before such a meaningful event.

So where now stand the editors of the various organs of the Murdoch press? Murdoch told the Leveson enquiry that he does not interfere in the editorial content of his papers. If so his tweet was hardly a vote of confidence in their judgement. Which will now dare risk the wrath of a man who has a long history of strongly supporting Israel and who is much praised by the Jewish press for his fairness in dealing with its affairs? 

More importantly, where now stands British journalism? Scarfe is well known for his blunt, if rather repetitive, views on war and its consequences and has not varied his approach in years. A political cartoonist is surely employed to raise such concerns, to go against the grain of the paper and of public opinion where he feels it appropriate and absolutely not to kowtow to anyone's sensitivities. His work reflects his own opinion first and anyone else's by coincidence and I find it extraordinary that a newspaper proprietor should think it useful, necessary or pertinent to point this out, or to apologise for a cartoon that, crude and unoriginal though it might have been, was not, as a few have claimed, anti-semitic.

Happily there are two shafts of light in the debate. The Independent is running an online poll asking if its readers think Mr Murdoch should have apologised. When I contributed it was running at 83% No votes. Second, an Israeli journalist, Anshel Pfeffer, has said that the cartoon was 'not anti-semitic by any standard' and that 'Netanyahu's depiction is grossly offensive and unfair, but that is only par for the course for any politician when Scarfe is at his drawing-board'. At least someone understands the basics.

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