Truth, Power and…Cartoons: Are Political Cartoons Irrelevant?

Or in the bright digital future? Panning out from my own tiny, irrelevant, personal maelstrom, was there any future in political cartoons? Well, I dunno, but I’m sure going to windbag for a bit about it.

Images are powerful things. Incredibly powerful. I would beg to differ with Moses and his chums – with the humility befitting my trade, natch – in the beginning wasn’t the Word. There were millennia of visuals before words turned up. And they are embedded in our brains as tools of memory and imagination. They are powerful things. People who want to manipulate minds – advertisers, TV producers, politicians, street activists (e.g. Paris 1968) – know it. Artists and photographers know it. Heck, even cartoonists know it. Take this example from VE Day,1945 (scroll down), showing an embattled British soldier handing back the laurel of peace and victory to the reader, asking “victorious” Brits to recall what sacrifices had been made. It no doubt had an effect on the reader.

But that Philip Zec cartoon is unusual as a political cartoon. It shows no politician. They are usually the players who act out the farce in political cartoons. The aim of a political cartoon is usually satirical, using comedy or tragedy. Many combine both, like this one from 2003, when Iraq was about to suffer “shock and awe” at the hands of Bush and Blair. The situation was tragic but it attempted to use black humour to make a point.

His Master's Voice

But more generally, what is the point? Surely just like the best journalism, it is to satisfy the creaky, overused old Quaker saw “Speak Truth to Power”. To show up corruption and hypocrisy in those in power.

How much of an effect they have is an open question. The late Alan Coren, the last great editor of the British satirical magazine Punch, had a lot of respect for the form. He knew that cartoonists didn’t bring down governments but he also knew they had power, saying “They’re the picture that tells the thousand words of crap journalism that’s framed around it”. And that from a writer, not a cartoonist. He was being impish; he didn’t mean to disparage journalists by saying that – but he was highlighting that journalists are often paid by the word whereas cartoonists are paid to condense an idea into a single image.

So it may be so that cartoons don’t actually bring down governments – certainly not in the UK. But the important thing that they do – like all images – is to leave a mark on the subconscious. And the subconscious is a very powerful thing.

What’s more, cartoonists tend to get away with more than writers – because they use images which suggest “what if” rather than stating things in words which can be refuted.
You only have to look at footage of demonstrations in places where the written word is an act of sedition and see how banners carried by demonstrators use cartoons – or crude caricatures – to make their point.

But cartooning in such places is nevertheless a dangerous occupation. Cartoons frighten autocracies because of their power. It’s also true that in many of these countries people value their cartoonists because they convey ideas strongly and simply without literal libel. The Al-Jazeera news channel recently devoted a full 45 minutes to the power of the editorial cartoon, with extensive interviews of cartoonists from Brazil, Sudan and Malaysia. Their stories were enlightening and humbling. They had all been threatened by authorities or religious groups. None of them could publish freely in mainstream media in their countries. But they each spoke proudly about their cartoons being used by political activists to spread messages.

In the established democracies, governments don’t tend to arrest or even sue cartoonists. Primarily, this is because it would make a laughing stock of any government which did so. But also because any shocking, controversial stuff is removed by editors before publication. However, the images which are published still exert a slow-burning subconscious effect.
This is nothing new. There is a very long history of excellent political cartooning in this country – by turns scurrilous, adolescent, pompous, scatological, conservative, radical, preachy, dull, shocking, outrageous, hilarious, impenetrable and sublime – going back to the Georgian period. “Oh, do show us an adolescent, scatological one”, you plead? Oh, OK then, here’s one from Richard Newton, a cartoonist who died at the age of 21 in 1798, but not before producing a series of hard hitting, graphic images, often rather adolescent, like this one of John Bull triumphantly farting in the face of the king, George lll. Oooer! Satire! A similar image today would still be quite shocking, if a tad on the tasteless side, and certainly wouldn’t appear in mainstream media.

 A somewhat shocking image from 1798 - John Bull paying his disrespects to King George lll.


Cartoons had popular power then, even the ones without farting. People would flock to print shops to see the latest cartoons and debate them. So much so that it is often referred to as the golden period of caricature.

Ever since Gerald Scarfe’s sublime caricature skills first graced the media in the 1960s, reflecting a new irreverent age, we’ve probably been in another golden period.
The likes of Steve Bell and Martin Rowson at The Guardian, Dave Brown at The Independent, Peter Brookes and Morten Morland at The Times and Christian Adams at the Daily Telegraph all draw potent images daily. So there is a roster of excellent cartoonists working in the UK today, still using to good effect the old tricks employed by Gillray’s contemporaries – metaphor, allegory, hijacking popular art forms, pastiche and good old toilet humour.

However, this excellence is no guarantee of the longevity of the art form. Martin Rowson rightly says we cartoonists are parasites who need a host to survive. We can’t survive on our own so well. In Gillray’s day, the host was the coffee house. Then we moved on to satirical magazines like Punch, then on to newspapers; perfect partners in the early days because papers were dry news sheets consisting of pages of uninterrupted type. That has become less true now that papers are full of colour photos of semi-naked celebs and huge ads all vying for the reader’s attention. In that context, The Sun’s decision to cut editorial cartoons from the paper last October wasn’t really a surprise. Presumably they thought that cartoons did not fit the new digital age. This culling is not limited to the Sun or the red tops – various cartoon slots have been cut from newspapers like The Independent, The Observer, The Sunday Times and more. Others have gone further and, like The Sun, ditched editorial cartoons too – The Evening Standard and the Mirror, for example. So we parasites are losing our hosts. Of course, job-wise, the same is true of journalists and photographers too, so I’m not pleading a special case for us cartoonists. I’m asking if this loss is a backward step for satire and even for the health of national debate.

Well, maybe. Maybe not. But the following three points might be pertinent. First, the control some editors and proprietors exert over content stifles the cartoonists’ ability to satirise. When the business interests of a proprietor are reflected in the editorial stance of a newspaper, any genuine satire within that paper is dead.

Second, perhaps is a too cosy relationship between power and the satirist. It’s a well known fact that politicians buy our cartoons to hang in their own toilets, use our images for their Christmas cards and present awards in a charming ironic, self-deprecating way to us at cartoon awards events.

Third, are political cartoons, obsessed as they are with the soap operas of the Westminster Village, directed at the right power brokers these days? To a large extent, our laws and our fortunes are now set by supra-national organisations like the EU, World Bank, IMF and the World Trade organisation. But who are the faces of these organisations? Not ones the general reader knows well, for sure.

The rightward shift and the squashing of the spectrum of political debate in Westminster and the western world over the last twenty years has made the debate less relevant and politicians less able to effect real change in people’s lives. I am not stretching caricature too far, I suggest, by saying that politicians have become puppets in the power play of larger puppet masters who direct policy either by direct lobbying or through constant nagging in the media. Politicians are on the stage passing laws – and therefore visible – but they don’t control the strings. They have been bypassed at the top by global interests and from underneath by popular movements like Twitter and 38 Degrees. The real power brokers sit inside global corporations like banks, credit rating agencies, trade organisations and the very media organisations who own the papers. These people are not getting sufficient focus in the traditional media. Who knows the faces behind the WTO, the IMF, the World Bank, the EU, the global banks and credit rating agencies? And who knows exactly how they exert influence? Far too few people, I suggest.

We need journalists, unfettered by editors, to dig around and shine a light on these power brokers and their shenanigans. Once illuminated, cartoonists can do what they’re best at – colouring them in.

So perhaps it would be best if political cartoonists were to divorce from newspapers and become more radical, more angry, using digital media. Well, “du-uh!” – it’s already happening, of course. Those cartoonists from the Al-Jazeera programme all published on the web, rather than via traditional media and none was paid for his efforts. And anyway, how relevant is a corpulent, well-paid satirist in the days of Occupy and the anti-global movements?

The digital media are obviously the future hosts for us parasites. But the news gathering experience is very different on digital devices. As Peter Preston, ex editor of the Guardian said recently …”The internet doesn’t appear to know what to do with the visuals that suit newspapers best…this is the curse for cartoonists. [On the web], the images don’t dominate, but are politely filed away” You have to click on a link to find a cartoon. Or subscribe to it on a syndication site.

With the loss of the old common debating room – national newspapers, radio stations and TV channels – the national debate is fractured into a million little blogs, images and tweets. We no longer get information and comment from the same few sources. A good thing perhaps, but the really important thing about the most influential political cartoons is that they are read by the general public, by “opinion formers” and by politicians – and maybe even discussed on news programmes. Once the cartoon is consigned to an obscure syndication site on the internet behind a few clicks, cartoons will surely become nerds-only curiosities like jazz or stamp collecting.

The drawn image can be very powerful and direct, whatever the medium. Many cartoonists would gladly draw more radical images, were it not for editorial intervention or for the lack of a funded platform to shout from. The message wants to get out but the medium is compromised.

Sage, tech-guru and, virtual-reality inventor and fruitcake, Jaron Lanier, in his book “Who owns the future?” questions whether we are currently simply replacing old corporate media conglomerates with new ones like Google and Facebook. Lanier proposes setting up a “humanistic information economy” in which all “creators” are paid for everything they contribute online – if it ends up being useful to other people. Sounds rather good. But how could this come about without the cash-mountains available to global media outfits? How long would it take? I’ll be outside, holding my breath.

The digiverse looks hugely exciting. But to bring our work to a digital public, we cartoonists need the collaboration of journalists. We work best together. And I would suggest, humbly, that we can help them in getting the message of Truth across to Power. If we can find a way of funding it.

Ideas, anyone?