On Steve Jobs and Cartoons, for British Journalism Review / by Rich Hobbs

It was recently reported that Steve Jobs, the boss of Apple responsible for

infesting the World with iPods, iPhones, iPads and vast screes of other iCrap,

had banned a cartoonist from one of his apps, because Jobs thought his

material was "objectionable". It was then reported that he’d changed his mind

and allowed "professional political satirists and humorists" back onto his

systems. What was interesting about this story had nothing to do with the

caprice of digitocrats, but in the reaction of the liberal chatterati to it. Many

People expressed surprise and concern that someone like Jobs should behave

like that at all, presumably because they’d bought him at his own worth as a

shiny new mixture of Guttenburg, Einstein and the Lord Buddha. I doubt,

however, if the cartoonist in question was surprised.

Cartoons as a medium, particularly political ones, occupy a curious, twilit, not

quite respectable place in the realm of journalism, often integral to the

topography of a newspaper but also more than slightly semi-detached from the

whole undertaking . Partly that’s because cartoons’ relationship to other

media, whether it’s newspapers or one of Jobs’ latest gizmos, is parasitical.

For nearly half a millennium, following the invention of printing, satirical

engravings and etchings existed quite happily on their own. Hogarth and

Gillray sold all their work as individual prints, retailed from shops and kiosks

that stretched from Charing Cross to St Paul’s, and Cruikshank was doing the

same long into the middle of the 19th century and after Punch had killed off

most of the rest of the trade. In fact, the first daily political cartoon only

appeared in this country as late as 1900, when Francis Carruthers-Gould

started working for the Westminster Gazette.

There is, in other words, a spirit of independence woven into cartoonists’

spiritual DNA. So, however much a good cartoon will enhance the journalism

surrounding it, both its purpose and its effect is always to lower the tone.

After all, one of the first and most enduring insults to be coined about popular

journalism - calling it "The Yellow Press" - came courtesy of a cartoon, "The

Yellow Kid", which both the Pulitzer and Hearst papers ran in their New York

circulation wars of the 1890s.

So however useful we cartoonists are as licensed idiots, we’re not quite safe

either, not least because, at the end of the day, as satirists it’s our job - and our

vocation - to mock the rich and powerful, a group which rather noticeably

includes the kind of people who own and edit newspapers and other media.

Sometimes, a proprietor or editor will even encourage dissent among the

paper’s most instinctive dissidents, though it will be as much of a comfort to

liberals as Jobs’ apparent illiberality that the foremost exponent of this tactic

was Lord Beaverbrook. It served him and his cartoonists, including David

Low and Vicky, to make a thing of them having a pop at him, and frequently

caricaturing him in as unflattering a way as possible in the pages of his own

papers, but this a rare example of something less like free speech and more

like self-indulgence.

For the most part, however, we keep schtum, cleanse our souls now and again

by sneaking in coded messages attacking our owners or editors (Giles used to

have tiny vignettes of Rupert Bear being tortured to death hidden in the

background of his cartoon). We hope they won’t notice, though sometimes

wish they will, and otherwise we just hunker down and swallow our pride, and

moan at interminable length in private to our colleagues about both proprietors

and editors.

Sometimes it pays off to go public in order to reclaim either dignity or your

soul. Apparently, after Murdoch took over The Sunday Times, he saw a Gerald

Scarfe cartoon of Reagan and was heard to mutter "Poor old Ronnie. We gotta

get rid of this pinko artist!", although the only authority we have for this story

is Scarfe himself, still working at The Sunday Times nearly three decades

later. Speaking personally, when I was working on Scotland on Sunday

during the Iraq War the editor and I - speaking exclusively through

intermediaries - waged a war of attrition of our own, him wanting me to

illustrate his (pro-War) editorial, while I insisted that I was a visual columnist

who should be allowed to express his own opinion. For the duration of the

hostilities, I usually won, but soon afterwards, having filed the cartoon on

Friday evening, I’d be phoned by the Art Director on Saturday morning to be

told that the editor had had "a better idea". I drew his idea for three weeks,

although without signing the result, and then resigned by email, telling him

that if he was always coming up with such brilliant ideas for cartoons, maybe

it was time he learned to draw.

That was bridling in the extreme, though I felt happier afterwards. Usually,

like most people, we bend with the wind (though I still have no regrets about

refusing David Montgomery’s offer of the job of editorial cartoonist on

Today). But sensible editors will allow their cartoonists as free a rein as

reasonable, within the bounds of public decency. That, after all, is why I

presume we’re hired in the first place.

Sometimes, though, you get wrong-footed from the most unexpected

direction. I’m very fortunate, at The Guardian, in having much more leeway

than I’ve been given on some other papers. That said, I clearly went too far

with a cartoon I drew at the time of the fall of Kabul, after the Graun’s pages

had been filled for weeks with wildly different analyses and opinions on the

direction of The War On Terror. In the cartoon, various turbaned members of

the Northern Alliance are seen shouting at each other things like "WHO ARE




I should, I suppose, have guessed that the comment editor (Seamus Milne, as

it happens) wasn’t going to buy it, but I was bemused by the reason he gave

for his unhappiness. It was, I was told, now editorial policy to make no

allusion to any disagreement between Guardian columnists. I asked him if he

thought the readers might not have noticed, then changed the captions. It’s

what we do if we want to get paid.