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We, The Cartoonists, Are The True Outsiders Of Journalism

by Martin Rowson

Martin Rowson's cartoons appear regularly in The Guardian, The Scotsman, The Mirror and Tribune.


I've got a treasured possession at home. It hangs, as these things should, outside the lavatory, and it's an original cartoon by Vicky, the nom de plume of the Hungarian political cartoonist Victor Weisz. It's not his greatest work: just a rather nice caricature of the holiday camp tsar Sir Billy Butlin drawn for The New Statesman about a month and a half after I was born, and it was given to me as a 40th birthday present a couple of years ago. What's really interesting about it, however, is its provenance.

This cartoon by one of the 20th Century's greatest exponents of the art arrived outside my upstairs khazi via a skip outside The Staggers's old offices in Shoreditch. From there it was rescued, along with about 40 other Vicky originals, by a couple of former Statesman hacks who were doing a bit of opportunistic totting as the magazine prepared its move, under its new proprietor Geoffrey Robinson, to offices in Victoria. So what conclusions can we draw from the presence of this treasure trove chucked out with the trash?

First, the new dispensation at The Statesman, whether Blairite or Brownite, was obviously working to a "year zero" agenda, where everything from the past, in the absence of an airbrush, is just rubbish. Even so, this scorched earth attitude to the magazine's heritage seems a little profligate. A Vicky original was recently sold through Chris Beetles' cartoon gallery for £500, so potentially they'd chucked out 20,000 quid's worth of material, although Robinson's largesse may allow for that kind of pot-latch extravagance, alongside the proprietor lighting Havana cigars with £50 notes and the staff wiping their arses on gold leaf. Second, sentiment comes at a premium these days. Vicky was a sensitive man and a gregarious cartoonist. Unlike most of the profession today - or even his great contemporary David Low - who prefer to scribble away at home and depend on the reliability of despatch riders or the post or, latterly, faxes and e-mail, Vicky seemed to get a genuine buzz out of the charged atmosphere of newspaper or magazine offices. Moreover, after he left - or was eased out - of The News Chronicle, The New Statesman became not only his bolt hole but also, in a way, his second home. If a magazine takes its ghosts with it as it moves from office to office, as I'm certain it must, I wouldn't fancy being alone in the Statesman office after midnight as Vicky's unquiet spirit views with ethereal dismay the latest article about the Third Way or ponders on the utterly cavalier attitude of his former home's latest legatees (although Christine Odone's presence might prove helpful in getting hold of an exorcist). Third, it's worth pointing out that this act of desecration took place under the editorship of a man who is now a Professor of Journalism in Cardiff, but who presumably didn't consider the political cartoon as anything more than a peripheral embellishment of the real meat of journalism - the words.

Of course, Ian Hargreaves isn't alone among editors in this belief, just rather more brutal in applying it. Cartoons are a long-established feature of the topography of newspaper design, and recognised as such, but this is no reason to assume that editors really understand what a cartoon is, how it works or why. This manifests itself in different ways. For instance, when The Independent was launched Andreas Whittam-Smith understood the vital importance of absconding from The Daily Telegraph with its cartoonist Nicholas Garland, particularly as The Independent was artfully designed to look like a paper that had been around for a hundred years. The purpose seemed to be for people browsing in the newsagents to come to the familiar Garland cartoon - inevitably some strained metaphor based around an image nicked from "Alice in Wonderland" or Winnie the Pooh - glance at it, turn back to the front page and make a mental note that The Telegraph had changed its name to The Independent. This was a canny piece of layout and marketing, but little more.

Less benignly, when I worked briefly as editorial cartoonist on Today, every rough for a cartoon I presented to him was rejected by David Montgomery as a matter of course, to keep me in my place with the rest of the hacks. It was clear that the maintenance of editorial terror was always more important that the contents of any cartoon, although the importance of having a cartoon in the first place was understood if unstated. I assume this was because it was in the Murdoch manual Montgomery must have been cribbing from every 20 minutes or so On How To Be An Editor. (Around 4.30, when I'd have to start drawing the next day's cartoon or miss the first edition, I'd show Monty the first rough I'd done that morning, receive the editorial grunt of approval and proceed).

Far worse treatment at the hands of an editor befell George Gale, who was political cartoonist on The Telegraph during Garland's brief tenure at The Independent. I was told by people then working on the back bench at The Telegraph that Gale's position rapidly became impossible, as Max Hastings interfered with the daily cartoon to a ridiculous degree. If Gale's period at The Telegraph is remembered for anything, it's probably for Private Eye's merciless ridiculing of his cartoons, concentrating mainly on the fact that his caricatures were unrecognisable. I think they fingered the wrong man: every day Hastings was telling Gale to draw people's noses longer or heads bigger, reducing him to little more than a ventriloquist's dummy propped on the knee of editorial megalomania.

What these cases reveal is not just the incipient tyranny, arrogance and ignorance of editors (Pope Catholic Shocker! Bears Shit In Woods Outrage!) but a systemic failure within newspapers to appreciate that cartoons are serious journalism. Partly this is due to their bizarre basis in both non-verbal communication and humour. This makes them doubly suspicious to word-smiths marinading in their own gravitas. Despite a three-hundred year long tradition - from Hogarth onwards - of using funny pictures to make deadly serious moral, political and social points, cartoons - and, naturally, cartoonists - aren't taken too seriously. In addition they're often seen as semi-detached from the proper business of journalism because of their existence in such a different, unquantifiable, almost irrational medium.

In a strange way cartoonists are journalistic chimeras: how they think, what they express and its effect on the readers makes them much more like columnists than illustrators, and personally I see myself as a visual journalist rather than as any kind of "artist". The words monkeys, however, maintain their suspicions: illustrators they can handle (because the writer does the proper, analytical, grown-up thinking, while the illustrator does the weird visual voodoo stuff). Cartoonist, however, do their analytical thinking for themselves and consequently form their own opinions, but in a strangely transgressive way, as if it isn't quite decent to flaunt the lines of demarcation in such a flagrant way. Thus there is an obvious, qualitative difference in the deference shown to the bigboy political columnists and the cartoonists who squat on top of their columns. Despite the fact that Peter Brookes and Steve Bell are more perceptive, accurate, engaging and succinct analysts of contemporary events than Lord Rees-Mogg, Hugo Young or any of the rest of them, one feels one can only mention it in a whisper, and if they ever get invited to dinner with the great panjandrums of punditry, they'll have to content themselves with scrambled eggs in the servants' hall to maintain their position as uppity artisans.

All this, of course, can and probably should be dismissed as the special pleading of a bunch of irredeemable whingers yearning for their knighthoods. But while the ambiguous status enjoyed (or not) by cartoonists may trample on their moody artistic egos, I think it also contributes to their enduring strength. Cartoonists are outsiders, and their semi-detached position within the hierarchy of newspapers is matched by their detachment from the petty concerns that dictate much of what goes into those newspapers, or at least should do. Many cartoonists are quite literally outsiders. For instance, New Zealand has produced an entirely disproportionate number of world class cartoonists, including David Low and Pat Oliphant (although naturally their best work was done after they'd left the place). You need to come from the fringes - which can be cultural or political or even just temperamental as well as geographical - in order to cast sufficiently jaundiced an eye on the absurdities afoot in the heart of the beast.

Vicky, too, was an outsider, a Hungarian Jew from Berlin who ended up in England after fleeing from the Nazis. He was fortunate in coming under the tutelage of Gerald Barry, then editor of The News Chronicle, who recognised Vicky's innate advantages and nurtured his protege by sending him on a crash course in English culture before unleashing him on the readership on a daily basis. (Apparently Vicky was receptive to all aspects of English life except cricket.) Despite this, Vicky remained an exotic figure in Fleet Street, much as Low did (after thirty years in London Low was heard complaining "These bloody Englishmen! They all went to school with each other!"), but this added to their effectiveness.

Although I've said that political cartoons should be equated with the columns they shoulder aside, in one essential respect they are different. Most obviously, they are an oasis of visual anarchy in the neat rows of print; beyond that, the cartoonist presents his or her case in a visceral and immediate way, "read" and sublimated in ways different from the surrounding text. Given that head start as exponents of dissidence in design, it follows that cartoonists frequently speak with a dissident voice. Famously, Vicky and Low had their dissidence formalised in their contracts with Beaverbrook on The Evening Standard, by which they were given almost total licence to peddle points of view entirely at odds with those not just of the paper's editorial line but also of the readers. One Standard editorial, right next to Vicky's cartoon, was headlined "No, Vicky, No", and he played on his readers' hostility by titling a compilation of Standard cartoons "Vicky Must Go!"

While Satire is often described as a kind of corrective surgery, cartooning is corrective surgery carried out with a cudgel, and the response provoked can be as brutal as the original image. A Vicky cartoon attacking the death penalty provoked a doctor in Harrow to write "When I see a cartoon such as Vicky put in on November 11th I feel sorry Hitler did not get hold of him before he reached this country." Going one better, Low was actually on the Gestapo's Death List.

But Oppositionism is intrinsic to the cartoonist's art: a positive cartoon often looks like - often actually is - just propaganda, just like a joke that isn't based in bodily functions or the misfortunes of others just isn't funny. That said, it's inconceivable that any cartoonist today would enjoy the privileged position enjoyed by Low and Vicky. On The Guardian Steve Bell and I enjoy almost complete editorial freedom, although the comment editor tends to come down heavily when the turd quota gets too high and the word "fuck" is now strictly forbidden (Bell recently told me that a letter he received from David Leigh on this subject concluded with the PS: "The same applies to 'cunt'"). It's also true that Steve and I are well to the left of The Guardian's editorial line, although that's probably also true of the paper's readers. However, I cannot imagine either of us working for The Telegraph or The Mail, any more than The Guardian would have been likely to hire Jak or Michael Cummings, the two most prominent rightwing cartoonists of recent years. Low and Vicky prospered under the patronage of Beaverbrook's maverick sense of mischief , along with Michael Foot and A.J.P.Taylor. These days, it seems, newspapers are insufficiently self confident to be able to monkey around with their self-appointed role of pandering to their readers' political prejudices. And maybe they shouldn't: if you want a different point of view, simply buy another paper. Anyway, a cartoonist's chief target shouldn't be his or her readers' sensibilities, but the fools and knaves in charge.

But if cartoonists are visual columnists exposing those knaves and fools then by definition they're also opinion-formers. It helps, then, if they have an opinion in the first place. While it's often assumed that the more vicious the cartoon, the more nihilistic the cartoonist, if we wield cudgels, nonetheless we're still engaged in corrective surgery: the world and everything in it is wrong, and we want to help put it right by revealing its faults. This was certainly Vicky's attitude, and he certainly was no nihilist. Indeed, towards the end of his life he was attacked in Queen, fizzing away in the white heat of the 60s Satire revolution, for being insufficiently nihilistic by hero-worshipping figures like Albert Schweitzer and Bertrand Russell. But if you attack everyone and everything, assuming all politicians and public figures to be knaves and fools, you end up like Ralph Steadman, one of the iconic cartoonists of the 60s, who nowadays will only draw politicians' legs because anything else will compromise him into flattering the enemy. One wonders if Ralph bothers voting anymore, and, if he's disenfranchised himself from his rights as a citizen, whether it's worth listening to anything he has to say. Or, indeed, whether he had anything to say in the first place.

Vicky cared, probably too much. He vilified generations of politicians, most famously Harold Mamillan, and as we've seen was vilified in return. It's likely he left The News Chronicle after pressure was put on the editor by the right wing trade union leader Arthur Deakin to get Vicky to tone down his cartoons. But he also designed the CND logo, one of the defining icons of political commitment in the 20th Century, and like a lot of us on the left, maintained a love-hate relationship with the Labour Party. When he killed himself in 1966, seven days after my seventh birthday, his grieving friends - many of them still grieving - put his suicide down as much to his despair over the course the Labour Party was then taking - supporting the US bombing Vietnam, failing to bomb Ian Smith's Rhodesia - as to any deeper, more personal malaise. By that point Vicky no longer commented on or illustrated the news. He was the news, his death reported on radio and television and in the international media. But he'd been news before, his arrival at The Mirror and The Evening Standard heralded in front page banner headlines. In the History of Print Journalism, Vicky, precisely because he was a semi- detached outsider, was a giant. Someone should tell Ian Hargreaves, if anyone thought he could care less.