Monday 22 July 2019

Frank Coughlan: ''NYT' is wrong to draw the line under political cartoons'

Beginning next month, the 'NYT' will cease publishing cartoons in its international edition.
Beginning next month, the 'NYT' will cease publishing cartoons in its international edition.
Frank Coughlan

Frank Coughlan

Funny things, cartoons. That is, after all, the whole point. But when it comes to the political variety in newspapers, they have come to mean a lot more.

Sometimes a little chuckle catches in the throat and a truth is revealed that all the self-regarding words on the page failed to expose.

Which makes them important and something more than a fleeting fancy. It also makes them an integral and essential part in the mosaic that delivers compelling journalism.

That's why the decision by 'The New York Times' to do away with provocative and contrarian cartoons from its editorial pages, and by extension its online platforms, is dumbfounding. Beginning next month, the 'NYT' will cease publishing cartoons in its international edition.

This brings the overseas newspaper into line with the one rolling off the presses at headquarters, which scuttled its round-ups of syndicated cartoons a few years ago. This is directly connected to the controversy over a drawing which depicted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a guide dog, wearing a Star of David collar and leading a blind and suitably dopey Donald Trump.

This shabby gag was reasonably and justifiably condemned as crudely anti- Semitic. It should never have left the sketch pad of its creator, let alone blindside a generous number of newsroom stress tests along the way to publication.

Punish the cartoonist, even sanction the journalists who were asleep at the wheel, but don't outlaw this vital and under-rated weapon in the editor's arsenal out of nothing more than a rush to lily-livered virtue signalling. The satirical illustration, where the great and powerful are mercilessly lampooned by the acerbic and gifted, is a tradition older even than Gutenberg's great invention.

And ever since pamphlets made way for the popular press more than 200 years ago the political cartoon has been a central piece of furniture in the newsroom.

If a picture is worth a thousand words you can add another nought when you consider the impact, power and after-shock of a witty and unapologetically ballsy political cartoon. You can go as far back in history as you wish to find early examples of the untouchable and corrupt being roasted on the spit as grotesques and charlatans. Leonardo da Vinci dabbled intermittently, but then he tested his genius on everything. William Hogarth's 18th century 'A Rake's Progress' is mostly renowned for its artistic merits, but there are uncomfortable social and political messages in there too.

Benjamin Franklin, another polymath, doodled furiously. His political ire was directed at America's colonial masters.

But if the DNA of the modern political cartoon has to be traced for convenience anywhere, 'Punch' magazine is a good place to start. This London weekly was at its most influential from the middle of the 19th century, often indulging its imperial readers' worst prejudices.

Its depiction of the native Irish, even its parliamentarians, as apes left an indelible impression on the English imagination. Repulsive, but no less influential for that.

With mass literacy came newspapers which sold in their millions. The funny or caustic political gag, if not at the behest of the editor then often the proprietor, became as fundamental to a newspaper's personality and character as ink itself.

We only have to think back four years and the murder of 12 innocents in the Paris office of 'Charlie Hebdo', a wicked response to an irreverent sketch of Muhammad, to remind us how much cartoons matter.

The tyrannical and corrupt hate to be rumbled, but to be laughed at while it's happening is unbearable.

Only this week Peter Brookes's brilliant depiction in 'The Times' of a corpulent and pompous Boris Johnson wearing the emperor's new clothes cut savagely to the bone. Not only was it a hoot, but a timely reassurance too that the loss of nerve at one great newspaper doesn't mean political cartooning will be drawing its last breath any time soon.

Irish Independent

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