An image that should never have been published and lessons that need to be learned

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On Saturday the Guardian apologized and removed from its website a cartoon of the resignation of BBC chairman Richard Sharp, which had been published in that day’s paper and online since the night before. Of the 80 readers who – at the time of writing – have complained directly about the cartoon (most have complained via the letterbox, as well as commentators in other media outlets), one echoed the remarks of many when he said that the image was “laden with anti-Semitic tropes reminiscent of the darkest days of European anti-Semitism”.

Martin Rowson, who drew the cartoon, wrote in his personal apology posted on his website how he had decided to frame Sharp’s departure – which followed a report of his undisclosed connection to an £800,000 loan made to Boris Johnson – in terms of Sharp being yet another person “turned down” by the former prime minister; to represent “Johnson’s gleeful toxicity by association”.

Titled The Copros Touch, the image was dominated by Johnson sitting atop a huge pile of manure and holding bags of cash. At the bottom of the pile were trash cans marked “friends,” “family,” and “sponsors,” and a black garbage bag labeled “reputation for everything.” In one comic, Johnson was saying to Sharp, “Come on, man! I put you down for a peerage on my resignation honor list!

But Rowson and the publishers agree that the execution has gone horribly wrong from here.

In the lower left corner of the cartoon was Sharp, who is Jewish, drawn with an exaggerated forehead, eyelids, nose and mouth. He was carrying a cardboard box with the name of Goldman Sachs (the bank in which he was once a partner), half hidden by the CV in his hand so that only “Gold Sac” was visible. This has been further crossed out with ‘BBC’ written underneath. Out of the box were a miniature Rishi Sunak (who worked for Sharp at Goldman Sachs – another comment on perceived cronyism) and a pink squid (referencing Matt Taibbi’s description of the bank in a 2009 article for Rolling Stone as a “vampire squid”). Nearby, poking out from behind the dung, was a pig, its snout down.

I discussed the cartoon with Rowson and I believe he was not meant to evoke anti-Semitic motives, but the effect of his depiction of Sharp, coupled with the references to banking and squid tentacles, inevitably recalled the classic horrific tropes of Jews wielding money and power ; and especially the Nazi-era propaganda images of Jewish bankers. Including a pig in context added him to the offense, and it’s no wonder readers have complained loudly.

Rowson says he was trying to draw Sharp “who looked quietly furious … in the standard caricatured way common to all political cartoons of exaggerating various of his features”. He admits that he failed and made Sharp “demon”. He knew Sharp was Jewish (they were, incidentally, in school together), but says it “never crossed my mind while drawing him, as he is entirely irrelevant to the story or his actions, and had no no conscious role [in his portrayal]”.

Dave Rich, head of policy at the Community Security Trust, a charity set up to protect British Jews from anti-Semitism, responded to the cartoon on These Pages on Monday, arguing that what was on the cartoonist’s mind was not relevant: “The oversized nose and lips, grotesque features and a sinister grin have been part of anti-Semitic imagery for centuries, a way of portraying Jews as repulsive and sinister.

Some readers thought other dangerous tropes were present: Sunak was thought of as Sharp’s puppet and the yellow suckers on the squid’s tentacles seen as gold coins. I believe these are misinterpretations, possibly caused by other suspicious cues and what Rowson called “stupid ambiguities”, which also included coloring the “Dignity Shreds” the pig was eating red, so they were mistaken for blood, and leaving “Gold Sac” on display when it had no meaning.

Rowson says he is deeply sorry for having “genuinely upset those I didn’t want to upset”, through “recklessness, carelessness and ignorance”. On the latter, he said he was unaware that the “vampire squid” could be an anti-Semitic trope, although it was “obvious” once mentioned. In preparing this column, I was in fact struck by how the epithet continues to be used by commentators and cartoonists in publications around the world, despite the critics pointing to Nazi propaganda which depicted an alleged Jewish conspiracy in terms of an octopus enveloping its tentacles around the world.

Many concerned readers, including Rich, have asked what the comic might look like in the first place. “The cartoon itself was a disgrace,” said one, “but even more worrying is what its publication suggests about the attitude of the publishers who let it be published.”

Hugh Muir, the Guardian’s executive editor for opinion, whose brief includes the political cartoon, said it should not have been published, and readers were “right to complain”.

“I feel for everyone who was struggling and everyone who expects better from us,” he said.

“Editors and production staff regularly seek out cartoon revisions when we fear they cross the line from disparaging public figures to causing unjustifiable offense,” Muir explained, but a lack of knowledge and care meant that on this occasion the need was not it was recognized.

He told me that at least three opinion bureau staff members had seen the cartoon, but the “aggravating problem” was that no one knew Sharp was Jewish – or, again, “the unfortunate bloodline of the vampire squid image” . The cartoon then went to press “with images that would have been harsh under other circumstances but were disastrous when viewed in the light of all the facts. This has been an undoubted failure and there will be a need to learn from it,” she said.

While some readers, including some who claimed to be Jewish, said they were unaware of Sharp’s ethnicity and also missed the tropes, the great responsibility that comes with newspaper publishing means taking active steps to build a critical knowledge (in this area organizations such as the Antisemitism Policy Trust in the UK and the Anti-Defamation League in the US have guidance to consider) and establish controls that mitigate the chances of material slipping through the gaps that inevitably remain. Both the cartoonist and the publishers also recognized the potential for unconscious bias.

In this case, I don’t think the desk staff were obligated to know that Sharp was Jewish (he hadn’t been mentioned in any Guardian article, for example), but it was knowable information. A greater focus on key tropes may have also brought a crucial pause.

Katharine Viner, editor-in-chief, currently in the US, said: “As soon as I saw the comic, I immediately removed it from our digital platforms and the Guardian issued an unreserved apology to Richard Sharp and the Jewish community. I welcome the fact that Martin Rowson has also apologised.

“The publication of this cartoon highlights the failures in our editorial processes, which we are determined to address. We’re working on what these changes might be so we can be sure something like this won’t happen again.”

Once the changes are determined, I will update readers.

  • Elisabeth Ribbans is the global reader editor of the Guardian and Observer

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