OPINION LEADERS Where to Draw the Line

Depending on your point of view, cartoons have been getting good, or bad, press recently. However, the so-called ‘Danish cartoons’ have raised furore that has more to do with politics and cultural misunderstanding than cartooning – and they were poor examples of the cartoonists’ art to boot. Possibly closest to the current situation is that at various times in New Zealand history there have been – what now seem shocking – cartoon assaults on Mori, Chinese, Indians and Jews which reflected, sometimes in an exaggerated form, commonly held community views.
Cartoons have always been able to make political point much more robustly than the printed word. As David English, one-time editor of Britain’s Daily Mail put it: “The cartoonist, given that special licence granted over the centuries, can say things others only dare whisper.”
Editorial cartoons can encapsulate complicated ideas in few deft pen strokes, get to the nub of an issue. Sir John Marshall, former prime minister, put it well: “A good cartoon can convey, at glance, wealth of information; it can epitomise an idea better than thousand words; it is remembered when words are forgotten; it is instant enlightenment.”
While New Zealand politicians have regularly sued the print and electronic media for aspersions supposedly cast, much more biting comments in cartoons have not received the attention of defamation lawyers. For example, David Lange and Joe Atkinson had long-drawn out legal tussle over column the latter wrote in North & South in October 1995. Atkinson said nothing that cartoonists had not alluded to many times.
Sir Geoffrey Palmer, another former PM, has written: “History suggests that cartoonists – who often deal savagely with politicians and others – are relatively safe….A cartoon is, after all, an analogy and cartoonists are generally on safe ground as long as they express genuine opinions.”
In eastern Europe and the USSR during the Cold War, cartoons played an important underground part in the expression of anti-regime views. Cartoonists have been killed or imprisoned where dictators fear the power of cartoon images. It is happening in some African countries today.
In democracies – and those in control of some authoritarian Muslim regimes fear this – cartoons are daily affirmation of the freedom of speech. While editorial cartoons have rarely been in the forefront of political crusades in New Zealand, one partial exception was during the 1951 waterfront dispute when cartoons by Max Bollinger, in the ‘underground’ cyclostyled bulletins issued by the striking workers, were an important expression of views other than the government’s, which had banned all opposition comment.
In New Zealand, cartoons have tended to give pointed emphasis to what the public has felt. Cartoons have reinforced perceptions: Walter Nash’s indecisiveness; Arnold Nordmeyer’s prudishness; and Helen Clark the control freak. Jim Bolger was portrayed as potato-head, with bog-Irish implications. But politicians want to be cartooned more than their concern about the content of the cartoon. To be in cartoon, without the necessity of name-tag identification, is clear sign that politician has ‘arrived’.
Legal action has been very rare. William Massey, then leader of the opposition, sued the NZ Times in 1911 over cartoon that he claimed portrayed him as liar and responsible for mean and despicable acts. The jury agreed the cartoon did so depict Massey but, being political comment, was not libellous.
Companies have regularly brought legal cases against publications but not cartoons. Nevertheless, cartoon by Trace Hodgson in the NZ Times in 1985 led to claim for $10 million in damages. The cartoon, based on Middle Ages legend, portrayed number of fast-growing 1980s companies as voracious rats with entwined tails. The case petered out following the demise of many of the companies following the 1987 sharemarket crash.
The great value of cartoons, certainly from an historical perspective, is that, as the quick gut reaction of cartoonists drawing their inspiration from popular sentiment, they catch and preserve the unofficial values and attitudes of the time.

Ian F Grant, writer and publisher, was founder of the NZ Cartoon Archive at the National Library. He is the author of several books of cartoon history, most recently Between the Lines: cartoon century of New Zealand political and social history, 1906-2005.

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