Case Number: 2586

Council Meeting: JUNE 2017

Decision: Not Upheld

Publication: The Dominion Post

Ruling Categories: Cartoons
Editorial Freedom
Offensive Language


Andrew Hubbard complained that cartoons depicting Syrian leader Bashar Al Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin were based on unsubstantiated accusations of war crimes and that a depiction of them as less than human was a form of hate speech.

The Complaint

Andrew Hubbard complained of three cartoons by Tom Scott, Trace Hodgson and Al Nisbett which were published inThe Dominion Post following an alleged chemical weapons attack in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikoun in April 2017.

He said that while the Press Council viewed cartoons as opinions which included the right to offend, these had far exceeded these guidelines.

There was a requirement for the opinions to have a foundation in fact. There was no evidence that Assad and Putin were responsible for the attack. Accusations had been made by Western government sources and these had been refuted by the Russian and Syrian governments.

He said the Trace Hodgson “goblins” cartoon, headed “What sort of creatures would murder little children with chemical weapons”, depicted Assad and Putin as sub-human. This was a form of hate speech comparable to the way Jews were portrayed as rats by 1930s German cartoonists and has no place in a newspaper.

If any content is acceptable as opinion, then no cartoon is too offensive and no expression is off-limits.

The combined result of publishing these cartoons in this way and at this time was to influence public emotion in a manner more akin to xenophobia and political propaganda than to journalism.

The bully pulpit afforded the editor had a valid place and purpose if constrained by ethical concerns. It was being abused. The right to publish and to offend did not exist in a vacuum.

Mr Hubbard also complained about an article in The Dominion Post on the same chemical weapon attack. This will be dealt with separately.

The Response

Bernadette Courtney, Fairfax central region editor in chief, said the cartoonists were all entitled to their own views. The cartoons were opinion and clearly identified as such.

She added the Press Council had noted cartoonists may express their own opinions and in doing so may cause disquiet or offense.

The Discussion

These cartoons, which were published within seven days of each other, were three separate takes by three different cartoonists on the subject of a chemical weapons attack on the Syrian rebel-held town of Khan Sheikoun on April 4.

International media reported more than 80 people were killed after the town was attacked by Syrian Government aircraft.

The cartoons all vilify Assad and Putin, although Scott’s cartoon also took an incidental swipe at President Donald Trump.

They are harsh, but not unduly so, given the gravity of the alleged war crimes they are commenting on.

While the Press Council has long held that cartoons are expressions of opinion, Mr Hubbard argued that expressions of opinion had to have a foundation in facts. He said there was no evidence that Assad or Putin were responsible for the use of chemical weapons and that accusations had been “strongly refuted” by the Syrian and Russian Governments.

It is hardly surprising that anybody would deny they were party to war crimes and to do so does not refute or disprove it.

However, there was strong evidence that the attack took place and that many people died. To suggest that opinions should be withheld until all the facts are established beyond doubt (and to whose satisfaction?) on such a major global issue, would make it impossible to comment in a timely fashion on many important events as they occur. This would be an unwarranted gag on freedom of expression.

As for the contention that the “goblins” cartoon was equivalent to Nazi-era hate speech, the subjects here were individual politicians, not representative of racial groups. Cartoonists have often characterised politicians as monsters, ogres, clowns, fools or animals to make their point and this is an unexceptional example of that.

The complaint was not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Jo Cribb, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, John Roughan, Hank Schouten and Mark Stevens.

Tim Watkin stood down to maintain public member majority.


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