Case Number: 2787

Council Meeting: JUNE 2019

Decision: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Cartoons



[1] Gavin Millar has complained about an Alex cartoon published in the Business section of theNew Zealand Herald on April 9.

[2] Alex is a syndicated cartoon, bought by theHerald from the Telegraph Media Group in Britain. It is a satirical strip by Charles Peattie and Russell Taylor, which began in 1987 and follows the professional and private life of status-obsessed investment banker Alex Masterly.

[3] The cartoon in question shows Alex and his colleague Clive discussing a transgender manager at their firm, Stephanie. Clive suggests Stephanie “has a good deal” because she can “skive off” for treatment and therapy around her transition. Alex mentions her voice is more gravelly than ever despite voice training, to which Clive replies – in the punchline – that’s because she’s hoarse from cheering at the Hong Kong Sevens.

[4] This particular strip is the latest of 33 drawn since 2017 about a senior manager, Steven, who is the bank’s first transgender employee and now identifies as Stephanie.

[5] Wikipedia describes Alex as a cartoon in which “The ‘jokes’ often reinforce gender stereotypes and reflect a macho culture of the financial services sector that is very old fashioned.”

The Complaint

[6] Mr Millar says the “terrible” cartoon in question is “extremely transphobic” and has no place whatsoever in the New Zealand media in 2019.

[7] The transwoman in the cartoon is clearly meant to be a target of anger and ridicule and the strip promotes the idea that Stephanie has gained an advantage at work by being trans, which is “ridiculous” given the discrimination trans people commonly suffer in New Zealand workplaces.

[8] Millar complains under Principle 7, Discrimination and Diversity, and says theHerald has been found wanting on gender identity issues in the past. Therefore theHerald’s apology to him in an email is dismissed as “platitudes”.

The Response

[9] The Herald’s Head of Premium Business Content, Duncan Bridgeman, responds by saying the paper took immediate actions after the cartoon was published, starting by publishing an apology the next day alongside the regularAlex cartoon.

[10] The Herald accepted immediately that the cartoon caused offence to the transgender community and responded separately to each complaint it received.

[11] Bridgeman says the paper has also decided to cancel the strip and reinforced with its editors the importance of carefully scrutinising its content.

[12] He writes, “The swiftness and significance of these actions recognises the seriousness with which theHerald views the publication of the cartoon and the response to it. Given the steps taken by theNZ Herald, the Council may wish to consider that appropriate remediation has already been taken, at NZME’s own volition.”

[13] Bridgeman explains Alex “has a long-running plot line, satirising bankers’ attitudes toward major financial, political and sporting stories of the day. It also targets the changes that have occurred in the business world in the last 20 years, such as the rise of political correctness, the increase in rules and regulations, and changes in technology.”

[14] He adds the character Stephanie’s transition has been a recurring theme in recent months and theHerald considered in the above context the cartoonists were parodying not the transgender community, but “the culture and attitudes of the financial world”.

[15] The Herald accepts however that this cartoon missed the mark and it has implemented measures to prevent similar content being published in the future.

The Discussion

[16] This complaint raises a range of challenging questions, not least because of the different ways reasonable people can interpret the same drawings and characters.

[17] To start, the Council acknowledges the Heraldhas acted promptly and taken concrete steps to address complaints by its readers; while the complainant is not satisfied we would note that the speed and placement of its apology and its cancellation of the cartoon speaks to the paper taking the complaints seriously.

[18] It’s also important to acknowledge from the outset that this cartoon is, on one level, extremely offensive; both transphobic and sexist. Yet given how routinely (and sometimes purposefully) cartoons offend readers, offence alone is not sufficient for the Council to uphold a complaint.

[19] Context is vital in this complaint, from several perspectives. First, our principles state that cartoons are understood to be opinion and the Council has only three times in its history upheld complaints against cartoons. The first was in 1979, when the editor argued in defence that strange and illogical behaviour was accepted as Irish traits. The second, in 1990, depicted ‘Black Africa’ as “a murderous or trampling monster… arousing hatred or contempt for a class of people”. The third was in 2013 when a cartoon was incorporated into a news story (that was wrong in fact) and so was judged to not be protected by the usual opinion defence.

[20] Previous decisions have acknowledged that cartoons “are given a wide licence to offend” and offer confronting and affronting views that are “often strong and pungent”. A commentary offered in the 2012 Annual Report compares cartoonists to court jesters, “enjoying a special license to make exaggerated and comic criticisms”. Cartoons are often offensive to certain nationalities, socio-economic or religious groups, political parties, and individuals, amongst others.

[21] As recently as 2017 the Council declined to uphold a complaint against a provocative anti-Trump cartoon, saying, “Cartoons in the media represent freedom of speech at its most extreme interpretation. By their very nature, they are confronting, challenging and sometimes offensive”.

[22] More generally, the Council defended the media’s use of satire in 2018, writing, “Satire is a format which gives wide license to provoke, mock or make a point by gross exaggeration as is frequently the case with cartoons. Cartoons of grotesque caricatures are often published and it is widely accepted that they do occasionally ‘push the boundaries’.”

[23] On the other hand, transgender issues have been prominent in New Zealand media this year, with debate over legislation intended to allow trans people to more easily change the gender on their birth certificate. There has been significant discussion of high self-harm, bullying and suicide rates amongst the trans community and concerns about the level of discrimination and misunderstanding they face. This is a small and especially vulnerable group, even compared to other “minority groups” covered by the Council’s Principle 7.

[24] Finally, in terms of context, we note the Alex cartoonists have a tradition of using the strip as a way to hold up for scrutiny some of the offensive, out-dated and cruel attitudes on display in the finance sector. The cartoon is based on a judgmental – perhaps even out-dated and cruel – view of the finance sector itself, damning it as prejudiced and populated by stereotypes.

[25] As the Herald argues, it is well-known for satirising the financial sector and,

as noted, this particular cartoon is not a one-off slip by the artists. Stephanie is a character that has appeared over 30 times, shown as clever and successful. Yet her transition is typically depicted as a cynical ploy to benefit from modern “political correctness” and diversity policies.

[26] So the question becomes, in this context, does a cartoon displaying these offensive views amount to lampooning people like Alex, who hold prejudiced views, or endorsing discriminatory behaviour against transgender people?

[27] From the Media Council point of view, it then comes down to our Principles. In this case, does the cartoon amount to a gratuitous emphasis on a minority group and is such a depiction relevant and in the public interest?

[28] It is certainly in the public interest for media to cover and debate transgender issues, from a wide range of perspectives. Yet Stephanie’s depiction and cynicism will quite reasonably offend some. They will see Stephanie purely as a punchline to jokes or a foil for powerful men. They will see a transgender character depicted simply as a man in a dress and an imaginary character fulfilling a stereotype. Those people will reasonably see the cartoon as transphobic and gratuitous.

[29] Others, however, will read the cartoon differently, laughing at the men in the cartoon, not Stephanie. They will see a successful, strong transgender character pulling the strings of Alex and others, who can’t adapt to a more diverse world. Alex has satirised bankers for years and used Stephanie to mock that work culture on more than 30 occasions. That context is important to consider. It is difficult for the Council to uphold on just one reading of the cartoon, when there are clearly others.

[30] Given the artists are purposefully addressing issues of gender identity in the context of an unwelcoming work culture, the introduction of a transgender character and offensive behaviour by other characters cannot be seen as gratuitous.

[31] Further, as a creation of the cartoonists’ imaginations, Stephanie can be read as a character created to critique a reactionary world view, rather than encouraging discrimination against real people.

[32] Having said that, had the Herald reacted differently, the Council may still have had grounds to uphold the complaint. As discussed, this cartoon can be read different ways and so could have been considered to have the potential to provoke discrimination against a ‘class of people’. But the paper responded promptly, prominently and sincerely, apologising to its readers and acknowledging the hurt caused in separate replies. It has also taken the unusual step of cancelling the cartoon to avoid future offence. As Bridgeman writes, the complainant has already won a victory.

[33] In the end, despite the fact that – as the Herald admits – this strip misses the mark on some fronts, it’s important to protect the rights of cartoonists to challenge and offend, even minority groups. This cartoon can be read as transphobic and even deplorable, as discussed. But in context, theHerald has acted responsibly and the cartoon can also be read as an attack on bankers, more than trans people.The complaint under Principle 7 is not upheld.

Media Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Rosemary Barraclough, Liz Brown, Jo Cribb, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Ben France-Hudson, Hank Schouten, Christina Tay, Tim Watkin and Tracy Watkins.

Craig Cooper took no part in the consideration of this complaint.


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