Should Political Cartoonists Ever Self-Censor?
Stella Perrett, cancelled political cartoonist, on self-censoring
As far as I know, I am the only female political cartoonist in a UK national newspaper (albeit a very niche publication, with a tiny readership), who has been very publicly a victim of cancel culture.
Until last February, I had been an unknown freelance artist for 40 years. I illustrate predominately children’s and science fiction/fantasy books, have held my own annual one-woman shows, and have given talks and workshops on cartooning.
In my 5 years with the Morning Star, 2015-2020, I sent them many cartoons that would no doubt have been considered offensive by somebody.
As per the publication’s hard-left agenda, my cartoons were anti-Monarchy, anti-EU, anti-Gig Economy and Austerity, critical of the police, and poking fun at the Labour Party. These cartoons they were completely happy with, even calling me their “star” cartoonist.
In February 2020, the Star published a cartoon of mine called “Endgame,” so named because I saw the issue of the proposed reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 as the “endgame” for feminism.
The Star faced swift backlash for publishing this cartoon. I told the paper that the subject was close to my heart as I had felt this “gender dysphoria” as a child and teenager, and it had affected my whole life. Despite this, the paper issued a public apology and did not defend their editorial decision, or support me as a long-term contributor. Instead, they removed the cartoon and launched an investigation into how it was published.
Threatened by the Trades Union Congress (TUC - which oversees all Trades Unions in Britain) with defunding for the first time in its 70-year history, the paper is now under an edict to always publish pro-trans articles, as well as those about women's rights, as balance.
While this act of censorship was covered by Private Eye and the Mail on Sunday, who supported me, many other outlets mindlessly repeated the trans-narrative that the cartoon was an attack on “trans” people, rather than what it was: a defense of women's safe spaces as stipulated in the Equality Act (UK) 2010.
My reputation (as an unknown artist!) was trashed world-wide on social media and the newspaper attacked by online mobs. Notorious characters from the “Left” jumped on the bandwagon.
Women’s Place UK, (who had themselves been labelled a “hate group” by trans activists within the Labour Party), were quick to support my cancellation, presumably because they wanted to preserve their own ability to be published in the newspaper. The notion of “sisterhood” passed them by in favor of their own platforming.
The Morning Star is still unable, for fear of the backlash from transactivists and the continuing threat from the TUC, to print my right of reply, although it has been published on pro-feminist websites.
In August 2020, the editor of the annual “Britain's Best Political Cartoons” told me he had been forbidden by his publishers’ (Random House) lawyers to include “Endgame” in his anthology.
This is why, last year, I adopted the tagline “Britain's Most Cancelled Political Cartoonist 2020.”
Instead of quietly getting on with my life as an artist, I was catapulted into the Radical Feminist world, which rallied to support me. I had to rapidly learn what “cancel culture” means in practice.
I have a “Non-Crime-Hate-Incident” (NCHI) recorded against me by Avon & Somerset Police, for drawing a cartoon. Transgenderism is now added to the growing list of issues cartoons may not satirize, pointing to the disturbing trend of media censorship on the political Left.
As one of their (unpaid) contributors I was well aware of the Morning Star's own lines in the sand when it comes to self-censorship. They refuse to publish writing or cartoons denigrating China, Venezuela, Cuba, or other Socialist countries. This is self-censorship which all their journalists accept, however reluctantly.
It makes you wonder how they can cover the appalling issue of the Uighur camps, the Chinese crack-down on Hong Kong, and the threat to Taiwan, with any kind of accuracy.
I tried to push this boundary, in 2015, when President Xi Jinping came to the UK on a full State visit complete with the carriage ride up the Mall with Queenie.
The only people allowed to “peacefully protest” were a small group of Tibetan activists, who the police let hold a couple of placards, and silently turn their backs on the procession.
For the occasion, I drew a cartoon of an old-fashioned Chinese peasant (sandals, straw hat, overalls) sitting cross-legged, eating from a large bowl with chopsticks. On the bowl was a map of the world. Squirming in the chopsticks was a large prawn in the shape of the British Isles. The title was “Another Tasty Morsel.”
My editor at the Morning Star told me they would not publish this cartoon because it would offend their “China supporting outlets.”
Since then, we have all become more aware of China's aim for world domination, and happily, there are outlets willing to accept cartoons commenting on this issue. A cartoon of mine featuring Huawei and the Confucius Institutes was later published in Uncommon Ground.
Cartoons which are anti-government policies or police actions perceived as racist are easy to find. But cartoons analyzing, or simply making fun of racism and racists (and lampooning is a perfectly valid form of criticism) are rare, probably because of cartoonists’ fears of being accused of racism
A good recent example is Charlie Hebdo's front page showing the Queen kneeling on Meghan Markle's neck. As a political cartoonist myself, I read this as an astute piss-take of Meghan's assertion of racism in the Royal Family, in her Oprah Winfrey interview. But some commentators saw the cartoon as racist in itself.
Some satirists are so terrified of this 'ism' that they self-censor before they even start – witness the satirical TV puppet show Spitting Image, who brought in experts to make their puppets and jokes on the reputed show as un-triggering (and unfunny) as possible.
There is only one cartoonist I can think of, Stonetoss, who regularly pokes fun at the mainstream narrative on race relations in the USA, which is hopelessly entangled with the anti-capitalism anarchist riots. And, yes, he is labelled a “right wing fascist.”
This is one of the 'isms' I hold my hand up to self-censoring over – I can think of plenty of ideas for cartoons based on the recent UK Government-commissioned report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities.
But I know that any attempt at a cartoon depiction of the actual detail of the report – say, for example, a white working class boy sitting miserably at the back of the classroom – would be unlikely to be published.
Does that idea for a cartoon sound “racist” to you?
It would be racist to somebody.
And it would likely trigger a social media pile-on against the cartoonist and the outlet that published it.
The current blockade and intimidation of Batley school by Muslim extremists has brought the Charlie Hebdo “Muhammed” cartoons back into the news. Following the dreadful murder of French teacher Samuel Paty last October, we now have a British teacher and his family in hiding under police protection, for showing pupils in his Religious Studies class one of the cartoons.
Commenting on this was a line in the sand that one of my outlets felt unable to cross — they refused to publish my response to the killing, because they feared retribution (it was later published by a different outlet). This is where we are with free speech in Britain today.
Transgender ideology is the “ism” over which journalists and cartoonists face instant censorship.. Women, specifically, are on the front line for daring to publicly discuss this issue.
No one disputes that race, religion, or the Chinese Communist Party, actually exist – yet, it is as though the fact of women existing as a globally oppressed sex class is somehow taboo as a subject for discussion.
Following my own cancellation, I have been on feminist podcasts, speaking about my own case and the wider fight for free speech, and contributed artwork to feminist campaigns, such as Keep Prisons Single Sex.
I have also spoken up for cartoonists in similar situations. In December 2020, I submitted my own experience as evidence to the Government's committee on Freedom of Expression (see item FOE0001).
I am well aware that what happened to me is mild compared to the threat political cartoonists face in less democratic countries and war zones. Cancellation from the Morning Star, having my reputation trashed with no right of reply, and recieving a NCHI, is hardly comparable to being actually thrown in jail, disappeared, or murdered. All of that has happened to cartoonists.
In November last year, I self-published my own cartoon review of the year, “2020, The Year We Were All Cancelled!” and dedicated it to journalists killed in the course of their work. I included a section called “The Cancelled Cartoonist Club” which features cartoonists who have fallen foul of some of the “isms” I have mentioned, such as Emad Hajjaj, an artist from Jordan arrested for a cartoon satirizing the Israeli–UAE peace deal. He was released following a global outcry, but still faces the possibility of a two year prison sentence for “offending a friendly country.”
Cartoonists’ Rights Network International, which attempts to monitor and protect cartoonists under threat around the world, is currently promoting a worldwide artists’ protest started in Myanmar, called “Raise Three Fingers”; and a petition to the Egyptian President, about the disappearance of cartoonist Ashraf Hamdi Mohamed.
After my experience of the reality of cancel culture, I intend to spend my twilight years speaking out for other artists’ right to exercise their freedom of expression.
Therefore, my new slogan for 2021 is: “They didn't cancel a cartoonist, they created a campaigner.”
Stella's new book, "2020: The Year We Were All Cancelled!" is available for sale at Amazon, Barnes and Nobel (US & Canada), and Blackwells (UK).
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