The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by the publication of a Cartoon captioned “AID À LA MODE” in The Australian on 14 December 2015. The cartoon depicted a number of people in traditional Indian clothing, one with a hammer smashing a box bearing United Nations logos and labelled “SOLAR PANELS”, another throwing away a fragment of broken panel saying “IT’S NO GOOD, YOU CAN’T EAT THEM” and another saying “HANG ON, LET ME TRY ONE WITH A BIT OF MANGO CHUTNEY”.
In response to a complaint, the Council asked the publication to comment on whether the material breached its Standards of Practice, which require it to take reasonable steps to avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, unless doing so is sufficiently warranted in the public interest (General Principle 6).
The publication said the cartoon did not intend to ridicule Indians but rather the climate change activists who would send poor people solar panels rather than give them something they needed—cheap power, aid and assistance. This had been a long-running theme throughout the UN Climate Change Conference Paris 2015. It said that author and academic Bjorn Lomborg pointed this out in his recent post on the Dharnai solar experiment in India, where the publication “Scientific American” found the town, sent solar panels, had to reconnect to the grid to get power it could afford and rely on. The publication said those following the debates in and around the Paris conference in its pages would have realised the target of the cartoon was not Indians. It was quite the opposite and its readers would have and, in fact, have understood this.
The publication said the cartoon did not intend to, and did not, ridicule Indian people. It refers to mango chutney in the context of a typically Indian food, but this reference was not offensive. The cartoon had depicted Indian people in a barren, rural environment, but this was a reference that was accurate and not offensive.
The publication said the cartoon’s depiction of Indian people stating that they could not eat the solar panels provided by the UN was not substantially offensive or distressing. It did not in any way denigrate the intellectual capacity of Indian people, nor their capacity to manage modern life. Instead, the cartoon denigrates the UN by ridiculing its decision to provide solar panels at the expense of more appropriate aid. It is not an attack on Indians for being poor or uneducated, but an attack on those advocating what the cartoonist considered to be useless aid.
The publication also said that while the cartoon may have been offensive to some people, it was nevertheless in the public interest for the cartoon to be published in the wake of the Paris conference.
The Council notes that cartoons are commonly expressions of opinion examining serious issues and which use exaggeration and absurdity to make their point. For this reason, significant latitude will usually be given in considering whether they breach Council’s Standards of Practice.
However, a publication can still fail to take reasonable steps to avoid contributing to substantial offence, distress or prejudice in publishing a particular cartoon and in that way can breach the Council’s General Principle 6.
The Council considers that the cartoon is an example of drawing on exaggeration and absurdity to make its point. While some readers may have found the cartoon offensive, the Council does not consider that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid causing substantial offence, distress or prejudice. Accordingly the Council concludes that its Standards of Practice were not breached.
Relevant Council Standards
This adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
Publications must take reasonable steps to:
6. Avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.