Case Number: 2925

Council Meeting: JULY 2020

Decision: Not Upheld

Ruling Categories: Cartoons


[1] Peter Brooks complains about a cartoon published by the New Zealand Herald on 13 June 2020. His complaint falls to be decided under Media Council Principle 5: Columns, Blogs, Opinion and Letters and Principle 7: Discrimination and Diversity. The complaint is not upheld.

The Cartoon

[2] The cartoon was the work of Rod Emmerson. It depicts several groups of people (holding what appear to be placards) running in various directions across the field of a Union Jack. It carries the caption “The search for archaic symbols of cultural disharmony and colonial oppression continues …” No further information regarding the context of the cartoon has been provided to the Media Council. The Council understands it to be a commentary on the contemporary campaign to remove statues and other markers of colonial oppression.

The Complaint

[3] Mr Brooks complains that, as a proud British subject now living in New Zealand, he finds the cartoon disgusting, inappropriate, racist and deeply offensive. He notes that theNew Zealand Herald seems to be content to condone racism, providing it is directed at white people and that if the cartoon had substituted the Tino Rangatiratanga flag there would have been “mayhem”. He rejects the suggestion that the cartoon is a commentary on the New Zealand flag, noting that it only contains an image of the Union Jack. The cartoon has caused him considerable distress, particularly in these “trying times”.

The Response

[4] The Deputy Head of News at the New Zealand Herald notes that the view of the cartoonist is that New Zealand’s flag, and the Union Jack it contains, is a symbol of colonial oppression and highlights that the cartoon was Mr Emmerson’s opinion and clearly expressed as such. He adds that the right of cartoonists to freedom of expression is well established. He rejects Mr Brooks’ suggestion that the cartoon was racist; the target is British imperialism not British people. He also rejects the contention that the cartoon is discriminatory as it is unclear who it could be discriminatory against.

The Discussion

[5] In order to address Mr Brooks’ complaint it is necessary to frame it by reference to the relevant Media Council principles, the content of which guide us in determining if there has been any breach. The Media Council considers that two are relevant: Principle 5: Columns, Blogs, Opinion and Letters and Principle 7: Discrimination and Diversity.

Principle 5: Columns, Blogs, Opinion and Letters

[6] Media Council Principle 5 states, among other things, that:

Opinion, whether newspaper column or internet blog, must be clearly identified as such unless a column, blog or other expression of opinion is widely understood to consist largely of the writer’s own opinions. Though requirements for a foundation of fact pertain, with comment and opinion balance is not essential. Cartoons are understood to be opinion …

This cartoon, which is the opinion of the cartoonist, can be understood as part of the debate around the ongoing impact of colonialism, and the actions taken to raise awareness of its consequences; such as the ‘statues must fall’ movement. The Media Council has always held that there is no more important principle in a democracy than freedom of expression. Cartoons have always been held to be acceptable expressions of that freedom. The Media Council has acknowledged in previous decisions that cartoons “are given a wide licence to offend”. Cartoons are, by nature, confronting and can cause offence.

[7] Mr Brooks may have been offended, but this cartoon is unexceptional. British imperialism and the Union Jack (as part of the New Zealand flag or not) are divisive subjects. Both can appropriately be the subject of criticism and are clearly engaged by the current debates regarding the treatment of minority groups around the world and the role that symbols play in the context of what some view as oppression. The complaint under Principle 5 is not upheld.

Principle 5: Columns, Blogs, Opinion and Letters: not upheld.

Principle 7 – Discrimination and Diversity

[8] Mr Brooks suggests that the cartoon is racist and the Media Council considers that this engages Principle 7 – Discrimination and Diversity, which states:

Issues of gender, religion, minority groups, sexual orientation, age, race, colour or physical or mental disability are legitimate subjects for discussion where they are relevant and in the public interest, and publications may report and express opinions in these areas. Publications should not, however, place gratuitous emphasis on any such category in their reporting.

The subject of this cartoon is the Union Jack, which readers of a New Zealand newspaper would recognise as forming part of the New Zealand flag. Its purpose is to highlight the cartoonist’s view that it is a symbol of cultural oppression, while at the same time stressing its ubiquity. The Media Council agrees with the Deputy Head of News that the cartoon is focused on the history and ongoing consequences of British imperialism. The cartoon is not being critical of British people. British imperialism is the embodiment of a policy of government, and the criticism of that policy in this cartoon does not offend Principle 7.

Principle 7: Discrimination and Diversity: not upheld

Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher, Rosemary Barraclough, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Jonathan MacKenzie, Marie Shroff, Hank Schouten, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.


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