The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by the publication of a cartoon in The Australian on 14 August 2020. The cartoon depicts a scene of the then United States Presidential candidate Joe Biden giving a speech congratulating Kamala Harris on being the Vice-Presidential candidate. Joe Biden is depicted saying “It’s time to heal a nation divided by racism” followed by “So I’ll hand you over to this little brown girl while I go for a lie down”.
In response to complaints received, 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 substantial offence, distress or prejudice, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest (General Principle 6). The Council noted that the complainants were concerned that Joe Biden was depicted in the cartoon calling Kamala Harris a “little brown girl” and that this appeared to reference Joe Biden’s Tweet on 13 August 2020 saying: “This morning, little girls woke up across this nation – especially Black and Brown girls who so often may feel overlooked and undervalued in our society – potentially seeing themselves in a new way: As the stuff of Presidents and Vice Presidents”. The complainants were concerned that a Tweet intended as a positive and affirmative message was instead portrayed by the cartoonist as offensive and prejudicial to all women of colour because the phrase “little brown girl” used race and gender to demean and belittle, and portrays Joe Biden’s words as condescending, derogatory and racist.
The publication said that the background to the cartoon was the tweet by Joe Biden announcing Kamala Harris as his running mate. The publication said that Joe Biden had made healing the racial divide in the United States a hallmark of his campaign and the selection of Kamala Harris as his Vice Presidential candidate reflected this. The publication said that the cartoonist had not misrepresented Joe Biden’s words, but instead had rearranged those words to present his own interpretation of Joe Biden’s words and therefore produce an effective cartoon. It said the cartoonist intended to scrutinise Joe Biden’s words in his Tweet referring to little “Black and Brown girls”. The publication noted Joe Biden’s history in politics, including that Kamala Harris had previously called him out for, as a senator, opposing race-integration busing policy in the 1970s. The publication noted that this background is important in contextualising the message the cartoonist is trying to convey.
The publication said that Joe Biden’s tweet could be interpreted as being racist and derogatory as an appeal to identity politics, and the cartoon questions whether Joe Biden chose Kamala Harris on the basis of merit or because of her race to bolster his campaign. The cartoonist said the central message was, at its core, an anti-racist, anti-misogynist and anti-identity politics message. The publication said that it is a duty and right of every public commentator and analyst to examine statements from politicians and not simply to accept their words at face value. The publication said that the cartoon’s intention is to highlight how identity politics had overshadowed the selection of a strong and talented woman as a Vice Presidential candidate and used satire and humour to do so.
The publication also said that Joe Biden’s selection of the first woman of colour to be a Vice Presidential candidate was a matter of public interest. It said it would be an unwarranted restriction on the media for a cartoonist to be unable to highlight what they see as racism, hypocrisy and the dominance of identity politics.
The publication also said that the reaction to the cartoon on Twitter and online demonstrated that readers saw the point being made. The publication said it had also published letters to the editor in response to the cartoon that examine both sides of the issue.
The Council has consistently expressed the view 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 be given in considering whether a publication has taken reasonable steps to avoid substantial offence, distress or prejudice in breach of General Principle 6. However, a publication can, in publishing a particular cartoon, still fail to take reasonable steps to avoid contributing to substantial offence, distress or prejudice without sufficient justification in the public interest and breach the General Principle.
The Council acknowledges that the cartoon is a comment on what the cartoonist considers a hypocritical choice by Joe Biden to secure votes from people of colour rather than out of any genuine concern to address racial inequality. The Council does not dispute the public interest in dissecting politicians’ statements and the words and actions of US Presidential candidates in particular. Nor does the Council dispute a publication’s right to publish its and its cartoonist’s partisan views. The question is whether, in doing so, the publication took reasonable steps to avoid substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or whether such offence, distress or prejudice was sufficiently justified by the public interest involved.
The Council notes that, by rearranging Joe Biden’s words, the cartoon not only attacks Joe Biden’s alleged hypocrisy but could also be interpreted as demeaning Kamala Harris and other women, particularly those of colour, by referring to her specifically as a ‘little brown girl’. This is far from what Joe Biden was doing when using the words ‘little black and brown girls’ in his tweet to reference the role modelling aspect of having a Vice-Presidential nominee who is both female and of colour. While many readers might see the cartoon as a criticism of Joe Biden and of ‘identity politics’, the Council does not accept the publication’s view that readers would see it is anti-racist or anti-misogynist. Rather, in appearing to demean Kamala Harris, and other women, by referring to her as a ‘little brown girl’, it could be seen to contribute to prejudice and to undermining measures to overcome the obstacles facing women, particularly those of colour.
While the Council notes that the publication and the cartoonist have strongly stated that there was no intention to cause offence, distress or prejudice, the Council considers the prejudice to women and particularly women of colour which the cartoon contributes to is substantial and that it offended a wide range of people, in particular women. The Council considers the public interest in questioning Joe Biden’s words and actions was not sufficient to justify the substantial offence and prejudice caused, and that criticism of identity politics could have been achieved without such offence and prejudice. Accordingly, the Council concludes that the publication breached General Principle 6.
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.”