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Daily Telegraph cartoon implying asylum seekers are ‘dirty’ ‘predators’ cleared by Press Council

A Warren Brown cartoon that received complaints for implying asylum seekers are “savages”, a “threat to white women”, “dirty”, “predators”, and “dangerous” has been cleared by the Press Council.

The cartoon, published a year ago in The Daily Telegraph, should be viewed in the context of historical, racist caricatures, complainants contested. But while the Press Council agreed it conveyed offensive stereotypical inferences, it said this was not in breach of its standards because doing so was “justified in the public interest”.

Complainants said the cartoon was racist and offensive

The cartoon was created in response to the medevac debate, centring on medical evacuation laws allowing urgently ill asylum seekers held in offshore detention centres to be moved to mainland Australia temporarily for medical treatment.

A man transferred to Australia under the laws was charged with allegedly sexually assaulting two nurses by touching them on the buttocks as he received treatment.

The resulting cartoon from Brown featured then Member for Wentworth Kerryn Phelps being circled by two figures. One is a bearded man with a head covering chasing the other, a white, female medical practitioner.

The Council acknowledged that the man’s sharp teeth and open mouth suggested hunger, his hands extended as claws and his face wearing a “lascivious” expression as he chased a white woman. This depiction was an “archaic picture of a foreigner which draws similarities to World War Two propaganda posters and should be considered in the context of the history of caricatures based on race and historical racist depictions” according to the resulting complaints.

Complaints also said the cartoon suggested asylum seekers and Middle Eastern men should not have access to medical intervention because they are dangerous, and a risk to white women.

“The Council notes that cartoons are commonly expressions of opinion examining serious issues and which use exaggeration and absurdity to make their point,” read the decision.

“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 this case, substantial offence, distress or prejudice was caused, but an overriding public interest made it allowable, the Council ruled.

“The Council notes that even when read in this context [of relevant news stories and an editorial featured in the same edition of the paper] the cartoon still conveys a level of stereotypical offence and has a prejudicial inference that the man was guilty although not yet convicted. However, the Council accepts that there was sufficient public interest in commenting on the case of the man in the context of the charges against him and the political debate,” it said.

“The Council considers that to the extent there was substantial offence or prejudice caused it was justified in the public interest. As such, the Council does not consider that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid causing substantial offence, distress or prejudice, without sufficient justification in the public interest. Accordingly, the Council concludes that its Standards of Practice were not breached.”

In defending the cartoon, The Daily Telegraph said “the cartoon – like all fine cartoons do – went to the very heart of the public debate that was under way and provided its commentary in the way that distinguishes cartoonists from those who provide their opinions solely in words”.

The masthead added that “it is all too easy for critics to condemn such work and the expressing of an opinion when being ill informed and led by social media campaigns that are twisted to suit a certain viewpoint that would censor public discussion rather than allow debate on opinions that differ to those driving them”.

In an article defending the cartoon after it attracted criticism across social media, Brown said: “What followed [the cartoon’s publication] was a tsunami of outrage where I was instantly and irrevocably branded a racist — like those racists, my great mate, the late Bill Leak, former cartoonist for The Australian, and Mark Knight of Melbourne’s Herald Sun.”

Leak created controversial cartoons that seemed to suggest Indigenous fathers cannot remember the names of their children, and depicted a group of Indian people trying to eat solar panels. The former cartoon attracted more than 700 Press Council complaints and was also the subject of an Australian Human Rights Commission complaint. However, the Press Council declined to rule on that influx of complaints, and cleared the cartoon featuring Indian people.

The Press Council declined to rule on this cartoon, despite receiving more than 700 complaints on it

The other cartoonist referenced by Brown, Mark Knight, was similarly accused of racism with a cartoon that showed Serena Williams on a tennis court with a broken tennis racquet and baby’s pacifier.

Knight’s cartoon also did not breach the standards, the Council ruled

The Press Council received complaints that it was sexist and racist given Williams’ “large lips, a broad flat nose, a wild afro-styled ponytail hairstyle different to that worn by Ms Williams during the match and positioned in an ape-like pose”, but ultimately cleared the cartoon.

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