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Drawing the line on free speech

Two cartoonists – Warren Brown who has drawn Mohammed, and John “Polly” Farmer who believes it is wrong to do so – find common ground on freedom of speech, in this article from our latest edition of The Bulletin.

THE slaughter of 11 cartoonists and journalists in the Paris office of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo by Islamic terrorists opened up a debate on two fronts in Australia – the moral position in publishing depictions of Mohammed, and the possible impact of racial discrimination laws that restrict freedom of the press to do so.

News Corp Australia titles took the position that depiction of the Prophet published in Charlie Hebdo after the murderous attack was newsworthy, and the public had the right to see the cartoon cover. Paul Whittaker, editor News’ Sydney title, The Daily Telegraph said local and global interest in that front page was such that Charlie Hebdo’s print run was expanded from its usual 60,000 to around five million. “Clearly, the publication of this edition was a news event that no newspaper – or news outlet in any format – could reasonably ignore or diminish,” he said.

A similar position was taken by The West Australian. “It’s news and as far as we’re concerned we’re in the news business,” editor-in-chief Bob Cronin said.

Fairfax title The Sydney Morning Herald decided against publication in print. News director Judith Whelan said she had decided not to run any of the cartoons depicting the Prophet because it would offend a segment of the paper’s readership.

“I defend Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish the cartoons, that does not mean we have to,” she said. The paper’s Melbourne stablemate, The Age, published a small image of the Charlie Hebdo cover after the killings, which depicted a tearful Mohammad holding a “Je suis Charlie” sign under a heading “All is Forgiven”.

Later both the Herald and The Age published the image online, in some cases with a warning that the particular article contained an image that some may regard as offensive.

Daniel Sankey, editor of news.com.au, said the decision to publish the cover was not made lightly.

“On one hand, in publishing the cover do we run the risk of offending some of our readers? On the other hand, if we don’t publish do we offend many more of our readers who would want us to make a stand against what those attacks in France stood for,” Mr Sankey told AAP.

“We thought publishing the cover was an appropriate way to cover the story. We haven’t featured it on our home page, we have featured it further down at article level. But I think in doing that it was in line with the expectations with the majority of our readers.”

Politically, the attacks revived calls in Australia for amendments to Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which makes it a criminal act to cause offence on the basis of race, colour, nationality or ethnicity.

Efforts to change Section 18C because of the restriction it placed on free speech foundered when Prime Minister Tony Abbott abandoned a promise to amend the law because of his wish to garner support for national security laws from Muslim groups.

Australian Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson expressed doubts in an opinion piece written for The Australian that a magazine such as Charlie Hebdo could be published in Australia because of Section 18C.

Mr Wilson wrote that while 18C did not cover religion, many Charlie Hebdo cartoons dealt with race as well as ethno-religious topics that could have been deemed offensive under it.

“18C would have been used against Charlie Hebdo because it sets a low bar to restrict free speech. Administratively, 18C also makes it easy to take action; all you need is an aggrieved party and an arguable case,” he said.

“Charlie Hebdo’s publishers would then have been caught up in regular disputes and subsequent legal battles if they refused to back down. After significant cost and time, courts would have had to test whether each cartoon enjoyed exemptions under the impossibly opaque section 18D of the act, which requires publication to be undertaken reasonably and in good faith.”

In Perth, Mr Cronin told AAP the Racial Discrimination Act should not come into play on this issue.

“This is not racial, what’s racial about it? We’ve got a picture of Mohammed. What race was he? People confuse the Racial Discrimination Act with cultural comment.”

Mr Cronin said prohibitions in the Racial Discrimination Act were regarding race, something beyond a person’s control.

“Whereas religion and other things are actually points of view over which you do have control,” he said.


John “Polly” Farmer

I SUPPORT free speech. Having spent the best part of 30 years working in an industry that relies heavily on it and drawing cartoons that offer opinions with which many readers disagree, I’m in a good position to make a few observations.

The right to say what you want, no matter how offensive, seems simple. The problems begin when you start to consider whether free speech entitles you to offend.

John "Polly" Farmer
John “Polly” Farmer

As someone in the privileged position of being able to publicly offend, I often find myself choosing not to.

I know there are those who see this as indefensible self-censorship, weak-kneed pandering and betraying the principle of free speech, but the reality is that societal standards have to be considered.

I wouldn’t say “nigger” in a cartoon to make a point, so why would I draw Mohammed? This is my position and I fully respect that others in my profession hold differing views.

Cartoonists go to work each day knowing that a good percentage of their audience will disagree with what they are going to say in the next day’s paper, but that should not mean they have been insulted.

Different people are offended by different things, and when we choose to ignore that offence based on our own view of the world, we are not exercising the right to free speech, we’re just being rude and inconsiderate.

A cartoonist’s job is to be critical, and we can and should do so without being intentionally offensive.

Pointing out absurdity and inconsistency, shining a light on inequality or evil and laughing at pomposity and self-righteousness are some of the many things that cartoonists have successfully done for generations.

Of course boundaries will be pushed and sensibilities challenged, that’s how we progress.

I’m just not sure that seeing how offensive we can be is progress.

Much of the material published in Charlie Hebdo would not be published or broadcast by mainstream Australian news organisations.

My initial reaction to the original Prophet Mohammed cartoons that were published in Denmark and reprinted in France was that they were unnecessary.

At the time I didn’t have a great understanding of Islam, and in all honesty I still don’t.

I just thought they were pretty crappy cartoons, not that funny, in some cases poorly drawn and published to anger.

A good cartoon should be thought-provoking and funny.

That’s what we, as cartoonists, shoot for. Sometimes we miss, but as far as I know we’ve never killed anyone.

Once I understood the seriousness of the offence that the Muslim world felt, I accepted that to depict the Prophet Mohammed was crossing a line that probably wasn’t worth crossing.

That’s not to say I haven’t drawn cartoons critical of the intolerance and barbarity displayed by extremist Muslims. I just haven’t used an image of Mohammed.

If the original set of Prophet Mohammed cartoons, and all those Charlie Hebdo has published since, were drawn in support of a right to freedom of speech they would have successfully made their point, but I question the cost.

If they were drawn to show us the stark difference between the values we hold dear and the kind of world the proponents of an Islamic caliphate desire, then draw on.

Knowing how offensive certain things are is part of the job.

I have offended people.

I have received angry phone calls and letters.

Some have threatened violence, like the angry man who took offence to a cartoon I drew during the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and told me he had a gun and knew where I lived, or the even angrier Collingwood supporter who swore that he was on his way into the Mercury office to punch my lights out because I’d dared portray Magpie supporters in a negative manner.

Fortunately these threats, and the others that have come my way, came to nothing.

On most of these occasions, these over-reactions actually validated the cartoons.

In no way am I trying to liken these instances to the terrible events in Paris, but there is a common thread in the unfortunate ability many people have to take things too seriously.

The fact people who draw funny pictures for a living can be massacred by those who hold a different view is abhorrent, incomprehensible and just plain sad.

Here’s my advice, for what it’s worth. Lighten up people.

It’s a cartoon for Christ’s (or Mohammed’s) sake.

It is making a point using satire, not violence, and the appropriate way to respond is to write a letter to the editor, set up a blog or tweet some clever counterpoint.

Lampoon the lampooners, don’t massacre them.

John “Polly” Farmer is a cartoonist on the Mercury in Hobart. This is an edited version of an article first published in the Mercury.


Warren Brown

A WEEK after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, I drew – and it was published – a cartoon depicting Mohammed in the Sydney Daily Telegraph. It showed a caricature of the prophet in heaven, critiquing the cover of the first edition of Charlie Hebdo published since the terrorist attack – replete with the now well-known cartoon of Mohammed holding a ‘Je Suis Charlie’ sign.

My Mohammed is telling a hapless cartoonist standing next to him ‘….it sort of looks like me, maybe if you work on the eyes a bit more…’ with a line underneath saying ‘A cartoonist’s worst nightmare’.

Warren Brown
Warren Brown

The cartoon was duly published, went viral on social media, and now – at the time of writing – I’m delighted to say I’m still alive. I’m not holed up in a subterranean safehouse eating K-rations with Salman Rushdie, nor is there an armoured car fitted with water-cannon in the driveway.

I drew a craven image of the Prophet and – so far – I’ve got away with it.

From a cartoonist’s perspective, drawing Mohammed was quite a challenge as there’s no visual reference whatsoever as to what the prophet might look like.

Years before 9/11 – and even the advent of the internet – I once attempted to draw Mohammed for a cartoon and set about trying to find some sort of picture reference. After coming up empty handed I wandered to our news desk to see if anyone had an idea what the prophet looked like.

It was only when a wise and particularly ancient sub-editor (who looked suspiciously like he’d knocked around with Mohammed when he was a boy) scratched his head, saying he seemed to remember it was blasphemous in the Muslim faith to depict him. I only discovered recently it’s not only taboo to draw Mohammed, but other than a tree, any living thing is off limits. I suspect an ISIL life-drawing class would be a rather dull affair.

Whatever the ultimate outcome of the terrorist attack in the offices of Charlie Hebdo will be, this cowardly act of barbarism has launched vigorous discussion on many fronts – particularly in the cartooning world. Are there limits to what a cartoonist can say or draw? Were these satirists irresponsible in goading and provoking a group of proven psychotic religious zealots? Have we in the media been treading on egg-shells regarding the unacceptable elements of Islam for too long?

Perhaps the very core of why this attack struck the world as being so preposterous was that an office full people were murdered over cartoons. An attack on a military installation would hardly be a surprise. Bombing a nightclub where partygoers are doing the unspeakable – having fun – is what we have sadly come to expect. Targeting a monumental symbol of western civilisation such as the World Trade Centre is now part of a terrorist’s toolbox. But cartoonists? Really? Is that what all the rabid rhetoric and skewwhiff bravado of radical Islam has come to?

You would be hard-pressed to make the Islamic State’s motives look more ridiculous by them waging a merciless, violent jihad on nerdy people who draw funny pictures. Still, understanding irony has never been one of ISIL’s stronger points.

Yet the ongoing discussion about cartoonists being free to draw whatever they wish does have implications – and ramifications.

There is a line in the film Jurassic Park, where the chaos- theorist scientist played by Jeff Goldblum responds to the idea that science now has the capability of recreating living, breathing dinosaurs from their DNA. He winces at the thought. “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should…” he says.

The same can be said for cartooning. Just because you have the freedom to draw what you want means you need to be mindful of what you’re saying. Clever cartooning – as with all forms of journalism – comes with responsibility. Undoubtedly Charlie Hebdo pushed the limits of what most people understand as acceptable – many of the cartoons we’ve seen from past issues of Charlie Hebdo would never be published in an Australian mainstream newspaper – whether they were about Islam or not.

My cartoon does not demonise the Islamic faith and I have no intention of holding up a depiction of Mohammed to represent the murderous, violent, neanderthal zealots who are doing their best to ruin our world in the name of religion. I will however, through my cartoons, continue to put the searchlight squarely on the depravity – and stupidity – of Islamic extremists who rightfully belong back in the third century. If Muslims in Australia find my cartoon in bad taste, then I would suggest we could discuss that after they’ve stepped up to tackle the problem that is doing real damage to their faith.

But taste – good or bad – is a subjective thing and the world desperately needs over-the-top ideas such as those thrown out there by publications such as Charlie Hebdo.

Warren Brown is a cartoonist on The Daily Telegraph in Sydney.

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