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Kevin Rudd and industry leaders speak up against The Oz’s ‘racist’ Kamala Harris cartoon

Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has sent a written complaint to the Press Council about the cartoon, created by Johannes Leak and published by The Australian on Friday, denounced as racist for describing US vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris as “this little brown girl”.

Multiple advertising industry leaders also called for agencies and advertisers to take a stand. Founder of Almeida Insights and News Corp’s former head of digital strategy and innovation, Alice Almeida, said: “I always get asked why I left News Corp. There are many reasons, but an example of one is the below cartoon, and content like it.

“I couldn’t work for a company which published this kind of racist garbage and then go home to my Indian/Australian husband and mixed race daughter, as if it was all ok. … I’ve been told to be ‘careful’ being so vocal about issues in Australia as it could be bad for my business. Well, this is bad for my family, and that trumps business.”

Nunn Media’s managing director, Chris Walton, called the cartoon “disgusting” and said “anyone working at The Australian ought to feel ashamed”. And Ben Shepherd, outgoing chief media officer at CHE Proximity and soon-to-be Thinkerbell’s general manager of media, asked: “Is this the sort of content advertisers want to run alongside? Seriously. Just gross from the Australian and can’t see how the people that work for them can be proud of this as their product.”

The cartoon depicted Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden saying: “It’s time to heal a nation divided by racism… So I’ll hand you over to this little brown girl while I go for a lie-down.”

Rudd called attention to the Press Council’s guideline that publications must not cause “substantial offence, distress or prejudice … unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest”. “There is no conceivable public interest in encouraging ridicule on racial or gender grounds,” he said.

The former PM was joined in condemning the cartoon by Labor MPs Andrew Leigh, Mark Dreyfus and Andrew Giles, swathes of journalists, and former Australian Human Rights Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane, who wrote “[The Australian is] a newspaper defined by its own identity politics based on race and division. If you don’t want to be called racist, don’t do things that involve racism.”

But the publisher has stood by the cartoon and called the accusations of racism “ridiculous”.

“The words ‘little black and brown girls’ belong to Joe Biden, not Johannes, and were uttered by the presidential candidate when he named Kamala Harris as his running mate on Thursday; he repeated them in a tweet soon after,” editor-in-chief Chris Dore said in a statement.

“As many commentators in the US have noted, Biden is accused of using racial identity as a political weapon, and that is exactly the point Johannes was making in the cartoon, using Biden’s language.

“The intention of Johannes’s commentary was to ridicule identity politics and demean racism, not perpetuate it. The Australian deplores racism in all its guises, as does Johannes.”

However, the context of Biden’s comments, to which Dore refers, is very different to that of the cartoon. Biden was referring to children from racial minorities who would look to Kamala Harris as a role model, not calling Harris herself a ‘little brown girl’.

“Little black and brown girls, that so often feel overlooked and undervalued in their communities, but today … just maybe they’re seeing themselves for the first time in a new way as the stuff of president and vice presidents,” he said at an event, later tweeting a similar quote.

The News Corp masthead said the purpose of Leak’s cartoon was to “ridicule identity politics and demean racism”. But author and commentator Ketan Joshi noted that the paper is identifying ‘racism’ as “Biden referring to young girls as ‘Black’ and ‘Brown’. Which is…………not racist in any way????”

Rudd also called Dore’s defence “ridiculous because it seizes on the individual words used, rather than how they are used”.

“It is crystal clear that Mr Biden is not describing Senator Harris derisively as a ‘little brown girl’, which is the clear depiction of the cartoon. It is in fact the reverse,” Rudd continued.

“Mr Biden is referring to Senator Harris as a positive inspiration to children from racial minorities who so rarely see people of colour in positions of authority. Indeed, Senator Harris is the first woman of colour to stand as a major-party candidate for either the presidency or the vice-presidency in the 244-year history of the United States.

“Mr Dore’s defence is, therefore, an obscene twisting of the truth – seeking to comport a positive reference to Senator Harris by Mr Biden as a cynical, racial and sexist slur.”

Rudd denounced the Press Council for being “notoriously weak” recently “in enforcing its own industry standards against the Murdoch media” and urged the regulator to act on his complaint.

“When Australia’s highest-circulating national newspaper openly encourages ridicule and resentment towards successful people of colour, insinuating that they are inherently unworthy of success on their merits, it reverberates not only among minority communities in Australia; it also reflects poorly on Australia’s image around the globe,” he said.

“The Press Council here faces a clear-cut example of a newspaper fuelling racist and sexist prejudice in our society beneath the fig leaf of press freedom. If the Press Council rejects this complaint, it will demonstrate that it is an utterly toothless tiger – a sham body that is subservient to the same newspapers it is supposed to regulate.”

Rudd’s complaint followed his initial response to the cartoon on Saturday, in which he called Dore “that slime of a Murdoch editor”, followed by the hashtag #MurdochRoyalCommission. Since leaving politics, he has been consistently vocal against News Corp mastheads, including The Australian, The Daily Telegraph, and Herald Sun.

Rudd has urged the Press Council not to clear the cartoon of any wrongdoing

The backlash Johannes Leak has provoked with the cartoon mirrors that his father, Bill Leak, became known for; Johannes took up the cartoonist spot at The Australian, formerly filled by Bill, at the end of last year.

The older Leak, who passed away in 2017, created cartoons that suggested 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 has similarly cleared other racist cartoons published by News Corp papers, including Mark Knight’s depiction of Serena Williams in the Herald Sun, and, earlier this year, a Warren Brown cartoon in the Daily Telegraph that received complaints for implying asylum seekers are “savages”, a “threat to white women”, “dirty”, “predators”, and “dangerous”.

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