Steve Bell cartoon saga


Three weeks ago Steve Bell submitted a cartoon to the Guardian which was censored for being offensive and using antisemitic tropes. An article appeared in the Huffngton Post giving Bell’s story. It took the Guardian two and a half weeks to publish a rejoinder by its readers’ editor, justifying its stance.

Readers’ views welcome.

Guardian Cartoonist Steve Bell Denies Anti-Semitism Claims After Drawing Spiked By Editor

Bell claims he has been “unfairly traduced and censored”.

Ned Simons, HuffPost UK
7 June 2018

Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell has denied using “anti-Semitic tropes” after one of his drawings was spiked by the newspaper’s editor Katharine Viner.

In two emails sent to journalists in The Guardian’s newsroom seen by HuffPost UK, Bell claimed he had been “unfairly traduced and censored”.

His cartoon featured Theresa May sitting alongside Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu in front of a fire, in which Palestinian medic Razan al-Najjar is burning. The 21-year-old was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier on June 4.

Bell said: “I cannot for the life of me begin to understand criticism of the cartoon that begins by dragging in ‘wood-burning stoves’, ‘ovens’, ‘holocaust’, or any other nazi-related nonsense. That was the last thing on my mind when I drew it, I had no intention of conflating the issues of the mass murder of European Jews and Gaza.

“The cartoon is sensitive, not tasteless, not disrespectful, and certainly contains no anti-Semitic tropes. It should have been published as it stands, but if you are still obdurate that it should remain unpublished, then I feel a duty to my subject to try and salvage something from this fiasco.”

Anti-racism groups caution that depicting Jewish people taking actions that recall the atrocities of the Holocaust is a typically anti-Semitic trope.

HuffPost UK understands Bell last week he had another cartoon spiked which portrayed Theresa May as a Russian journalist lying in pool of blood.

Email: Wednesday 7.38pm

Dear All

I wouldn’t normally do this, but I think that this cartoon, which has just been spiked, has been unfairly traduced and censored. I think it’s a shame because, so far, I can only find one mention of her on the entire website, and this would at least have been the second.

Sorry to intrude, please be as frank as you like

Email: Thursday 10.03am

Dear Kath

I thought I’d write to you after I’d cooled down a bit, and in time for today’s morning conference (which I regret I won’t be able to attend). I took the liberty of sending the cartoon out on a global yesterday evening. I didn’t want to tweet it as this should still be an internal matter. However I do think that an unfortunate precedent has been set here.

I cannot for the life of me begin to understand criticism of the cartoon that begins by dragging in ‘wood-burning stoves’, ‘ovens’, ‘holocaust’, or any other nazi-related nonsense. That was the last thing on my mind when I drew it, I had no intention of conflating the issues of the mass murder of European Jews and Gaza. It’s a fireplace, in front of which VIP visitors to Downing Street are always pictured (see page 12 of today’s Times), and the figure of Razan al-Najjar is burning in the grate. It’s a widely known photograph of her, becoming iconic across the Arab world and the burning is of course symbolic. She’s dead, she was shot and killed by the IDF while doing her job as a medic.

I’m sorry you didn’t think it appropriate to talk to me yesterday, and I fear Katherine Butler bore the brunt of my outrage, for which I apologise to her, but forgive me for suspecting that the reason that you did not get in touch was because you did not really have an argument. The cartoon is sensitive, not tasteless, not disrespectful, and certainly contains no anti-Semitic tropes. It should have been published as it stands, but if you are still obdurate that it should remain unpublished, then I feel a duty to my subject to try and salvage something from this fiasco, and will resubmit it to you later this morning in a form that may get around some of the criticisms (to my mind wholly unjustified) that were made last night.

I do hope you can find your way to publishing it. I don’t believe that I have any divine right to have my worked published come what may, and am always prepared to take heed of substantive criticism.

The editor, the cartoonist, his image and her decision

Steve Bell was angry when Katharine Viner rejected his cartoon about the death of Razan al-Najjar. I believe Viner was right, and that Bell’s public reaction ill-served his cause

Paul Chadwick, Guardian Readers’ Editor

On Wednesday 6 June the editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner, rejected a cartoon submitted by Steve Bell, whose images have appeared in the Guardian over the past 36 years. The decision enraged Bell, and he protested in two emails that he copied to all editorial staff. Inevitably the emails leaked and other media reported the row and published the rejected cartoon and the emails.

Readers were soon asking about the episode. The atmosphere was cooler by the time I had separate exchanges with Viner and Bell, who both once again accepted with good grace the scrutiny that comes with having an independent readers’ editor around.

Bell’s cartoon was his reaction to Israeli forces shooting dead Razan al-Najjar, a 21-year-old volunteer medic at the Gaza fence protest. The image was submitted by Bell late on the day of a meeting between Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Theresa May. The two are depicted seated in armchairs on either side of a fireplace in 10 Downing Street, their countries’ flags behind them. Netanyahu, grim, stares fixedly ahead. As often with Bell, May is shown as a creepy clown. Inside the fireplace between them is a head-and-shoulders image of Najjar, her red scarf in flames around her head. Eyes downcast, she may be smiling or grimacing. The caption reads: “In memory of Razan al-Najjar – not”.

Viner tells me that the opinion page team “were united in considering the image that Steve had filed to be offensive, and I agreed with them. As the fire looked like an oven, it seemed clear that the cartoon conjured up an image of the Holocaust. I think the point that Steve was making – that the death of Razan al-Najjar hung over the meeting between Benjamin Netanyahu and Theresa May – could easily have been made in a way that didn’t reference fire or ovens. In addition, I found the idea that Razan was burning after her death distasteful. She was a courageous and heroic woman, and suggesting that she, a Muslim, was burning in the afterlife – burning in hell – is offensive to her memory. The use of fire was unnecessary and confusing, since Razan was shot.”

To Viner, the question was not what Bell intended, but how readers would view the image. She stood by the decision not to publish – “as editors we edit all the time. That’s the job.”

The next day, Bell drew and filed a revised image, but to him it lacked the “conceptual coherence” of the original. Najjar is seen through the fence, in a gunsight’s crosshairs, and “the fireplace becomes a sort of TV screen as if viewed from an Israeli tank,” Bell explained.

Revised version – not published in the Guardian at the time or in this article, though it appeared in openDemocracy on 8 June

No revised cartoon appeared. Viner told me: “I would have much preferred that Steve amended the cartoon on the evening he filed it, but he filed too late for that and showed very little willingness to take account of the concerns raised or consider suggested edits, such as having Razan’s image in a frame on the mantelpiece or as a spectral figure hovering over the meeting. Steve then circulated the cartoon to the entire editorial staff – not the best way to negotiate, as he has acknowledged – and it subsequently appeared on several other sites to illustrate this row in the Guardian. An amended cartoon was then out of the question.”

To Bell, the original cartoon was “a tribute to Razan al-Najjar, and part ironic as I don’t believe she is being remembered, particularly not in the context here depicted. She appears to be in flames, which is a symbolic immolation. I felt that any literal depiction of the exact way she died would be excessive and unnecessary. The flames are minimal and evoke a halo, rather than an actual burning.”

Bell denied intent to conflate the issue at hand with the Holocaust. “I can see how that construction might be placed on the cartoon, but I cannot see it as appropriate or helpful. Such a meaning would have to be predicated on the assumption that “Netanyahu” and “Israeli flag” represent an entire race of people rather than the specific politician here described. What would be the point of such an allusion to the Holocaust? It would not help the cartoon, which is intended as a kind of memorial, in any way.”

Bell expressed concern about what he called “a kind of growing visual prudishness”. He presented to me a perspective that I hope will give readers a sense of how tensions can arise between cartoonists and the editors who must take responsibility for publication.

“Pictures are always open to interpretation, and that is one of the many things I love about them. After a career spent drawing often quite pointed cartoons, I find that I cherish ambiguity in a picture more and more. The fact that it is possible to build meaning in layers, and to have conflicting ideas within the same space is one of the strengths of the medium. A cartoon is not a photograph nor is it an editorial. There is always a straightforward, literal interpretation, and always a wide range of often contradictory, underlying allusions, evocations, references and metaphors.

“I hope that with experience I have developed some skill in articulating these meanings, sometimes to comic effect, sometimes with ironic intent and sometimes (more rarely but just as significantly) as a direct appeal to emotion. This cartoon clearly falls into the latter category, which is why I was especially upset at its being spiked.”

An ultimate decision-maker like Viner lacks the luxury of these gradations. If enough experienced and sensible people, with a feel for their audience and a taken-as-read appreciation for the role of satire in a free society, see in a cartoon a problematic allusion to the Holocaust, a leader listens, considers context, thinks about the individual involved, and makes a judgment – often within a tight deadline.

Intended or unintended, I believe that in this cartoon an allusion to the ovens of the concentration camps of the Holocaust is obvious. I don’t regard the image as antisemitic, which is important to state because Bell has been accused of it more than once before. Rather, I see the image as insensitively and counterproductively ill-judged.

The Holocaust was a crime of a vastness hard to grasp – in its planning, execution and consequences. It is freighted with suffering still, and any rhetorical evocation of it, in words or images, requires great care and a sense of proportion.

Rejection by Viner of this cartoon was not censorship or an unfortunate precedent, as Bell initially charged. It was the ordinary exercise of editorial power legitimately vested in Viner by the publisher of the Guardian. Bell himself acknowledges “no divine right to have my work published come what may”.

I asked Bell if, by emailing the entire Guardian editorial department and attaching the rejected cartoon, he had intended to leak it.

“It was not my express or conscious intention to leak the cartoon into the wider world,” Bell replied. “I know very well that, while I have been published more or less every day in the Guardian since 1981, there is no other daily paper that would touch me or my work with a bargepole, let alone allow me the degree of editorial freedom that I have experienced at the Guardian. I never seriously thought that another paper would dream of picking up this cartoon and running with it. In retrospect this attitude on my part may have been naive.”

I would be naive if I did not ponder whether Bell is capable of being disingenuous.

Flawed, like us all, Bell is a fine exponent of his artform, with a toughness that practising in the great English tradition of political cartooning undoubtedly requires.

In this case I believe Bell delivered a clanger, amplified by the publicity his own actions prompted. It made Bell and potential antisemitism the story, and muted his cause, which I take to be a demand that Israel’s allies press it to explain the violent death of an articulate young woman who was just starting to come to attention.

Comments (5)

  • Michael Westcombe says:

    Can’t agree with any of this. Sorry. Despite Bell’s disclaimer, it shows a light on Viner and The Guardian’s new editorial policy. Neither are welcome to me. I am a little surprised at this line from Jewish Voice for Labour.

    [Sorry, slightly bemused by this comment. JVL doesn’t have “a line” on this. We thought readers might like to discuss the issues – website editor]

  • Linda Edmondson says:

    I read Paul Chadwick’s piece with incredulity. One more nail in the coffin as far as my relationship with the Guardian is concerned. How exactly does an image of a wood-burning domestic stove evoke Auschwitz? Does Kath Viner believe that Jews were burned to death in the gas chambers? Will images of wood-burners be banned in the Guardian in case they remind people of the Holocaust? My full support to Steve Bell and may he continue to produce funny and offensive cartoons for many years to come.

  • John says:

    From the first days of the Manchester Guardian, this publication has always stood four-square behind the zionist project to steal land from the Palestinians and to force them all out.
    Viner and her lap dog Chadwick are just a continuation of a century or more policy of this Liberal Imperialist newspaper, which supported planting a European colony in the Middle East to protect the interests of the British Empire.
    Where Steve Bell is naive is in never recognising or understanding just how slanted this paper is.

  • This episode demonstrates nothing so much as the timidity of the Guardian. There was nothing remotely antisemitic in Steve Bell’s cartoon.

    Netanyahu represents the Israeli state, not Jewish people. A very simple idea really. But even if Netanyahu did, as per Zionist ideology represent all Jewish people, the cartoon still isn’t antisemitic. It is a comment on the horrors of an Israeli policy of deliberately mowing down unarmed Palestinian demonstrators for fear that even the idea of Return must never be allowed to come to pass.

    The suggestion that a fireplace = oven = holocaust should be treated with contempt. It is a parallel to the attack on Nazi Shah that the that the transfer of Israel to the USA, a satirical joke, was the transportation of Jews and transports = holocaust.

    We should reject this racist word play. The holocaust is about genocide and mass murder. There is indeed a comparison to be made but it is not via an obscene form of word association but the actions of the Israeli state whose treatment of the Palestinians as the other do indeed bear comparison with the Nazi attitude to the untermenschen. That is the real parallel that the Guardian is running from

  • Steve Tille says:

    Katherine Viner’s reasons utterly spurious…

Comments are now closed.