More than 300 readers complained to the Guardian about a cartoon that suggested “incest and Scottish country dancing” were UK Labour party priorities in Scotland, Guardian readers editor Chris Elliott reported this weekend.
The March 9 cartoon strip by Steve Bell showed two Scottish politicians, Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond, with Sturgeon saying she would “happily support a Labour goverment…but I will never ever compromise on our core demand…for incest and Scottish country dancing!” The pair are shown dancing in kilts in the last panel of the cartoon.
Bell is “one of the Guardian‘s most prestigious satirists,” according to the Huffington Post UK.
The excuses provided by the newspaper included the arguments from the cartoonist that he was not racist but “half Scottish” and that it was “obvious” and just a “joke” that “core demands do not include incest and Scottish country dancing.”
Even though Bell is half Scottish and he intended the cartoon as a joke, such a cultural stereotype would not fly for cartoons about, say, African Americans and watermelon, as recent controversies for racist cartoons show. For example, a cartoon about watermelon toothpaste used by Obama also led to many complaints but unlike in the Guardian case here, led to the Boston Herald‘s apology last year.
When asked where the line would be for a cartoon to go too far, Elliott told iMediaEthics by e-mail “You use the editorial code as a guide and then judgment about the fine lines that put you one side or the other – it is not an exact science. Here is an earlier occasion when I didn’t agree with Steve,” pointing to this 2012 column.
Elliott wrote that even if readers don’t find the cartoon funny, it’s OK to publish. “I am not defending the cartoon, but I do defend his right to draw it,” Elliott wrote.
He pointed out that the cartoonist has a “combative style…is partisan and proud of it.” Further, Elliott noted that Bell is “an equal-opportunities offender” criticizing not just one party and often offends readers. “I have always defended his right to offend, even on occasions when I have missed the joke,” Elliott said he told readers who complained.
The Guardian published some but not all of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo‘s cartoons after the January attack on the magazine’s offices in Paris.
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Bell, who has drawn cartoons for the Guardian since the 1980s, told Elliott the cartoon was a joke and denied racism.
“Obviously their core demands do not include incest and Scottish country dancing,” Bell said to Elliott. “I wasn’t seriously suggesting that they did. That was a joke. Not everyone found it funny.”
Bell added, “I do get a sense of rather manufactured outrage here, and absolutely deny any charges of racism of any kind. I am half Scottish myself, and that part of my identity is very dear to me, and not something to be defined by SNP enthusiasts.”
Elliott said that the cartoon comment about incest and dancing was inspired by the famous quotation by Sir Thomas Beecham that one “should be prepared to try everything once except for incest and folk dancing” and that Bell wanted to address “the irrational, atavistic urges at the root of Scottish or indeed any form of nationalism.”
In addition to Elliott’s column about the cartoon, a Guardian spokesperson told the Huffington Post UK in part, “Steve Bell is recognised by his peers – and Guardian readers – as a raw, controversial and talented cartoonist, and his work is often in a pugnacious style.”
iMediaEthics has written to Bell for comment.
UPDATED: 3/24/2015 8:19 AM EST With response from Elliott