I suspect that Martin Rowson has been trying to get into this kind of trouble for years. Most cartoonists attempt it but rarely achieve a result as spectacular as today’s Daily Mail editorial in which Rowson’s work was described as ‘deranged and offensive’, a ‘malicious smear’, and a ‘crude drawing’. Forgive me for saying it but he really is a lucky bugger…
Few cartoonists don’t long for that kind of ‘bad press’. After all, it takes perverse amounts of anger to spend hours every day committing the outrageous act of political satire and there can surely be no greater reward than knowing that you have got under your subject’s skin. The only surprise in today’s news is that it only took a white van to get under the skin of the Daily Mail‘s editor, Paul Dacre.
Rowson’s usual beat is the murky underworld of his own psychology, resplendent with the tropes and traditions of the great English satirical illustrators that he’s internalized and about which he routinely lectures. He draws sub-Freudian nightmares; dark and mottled landscapes filled with blistered politicos and obese tycoons layered in rolls of fat. His ‘fur cups’ are a staple (thought to understand them you do have to say the words quickly until they merge) but so are the shitting, pissing, and spewing ministers of state. He belongs to that tradition of Cruikshank and Gillray and of reducing our ‘betters’ until they are our slack-sphinctered equals. It can, at times, be strong stuff. He is one of the few cartoonists who could have out-Scarfed Gerald Scarfe back when Scarfe was at his most Scarfe-like. It means that Rowson’s cartoons are not pleasant by any stretch of his or our imaginations and, in truth, they often lack the humorous punchline that’s traditionally the staple of newspaper cartoons. He isn’t funny in the way that Matt or Brookes are funny. Rowson is from the primal scream school of editorial cartooning and might well be its only graduate. His cartoons are a state of mind; anger squeezed straight from a tube of gouache.
I know Rowson only slightly — he kindly provided a quote for the cover of my new book — but any time in his company would convince you that his anger is real and well meant. He is perhaps lucky that his profession demands overstatement because he’s capable of admirable levels. Yet the irony in all of this is that, here, with this one cartoon, Rowson was actually understating the case that others have made for many years: that The Daily Mail and its website have a long tradition of promoting fear about the Muslim community.
Rowson is, of course, unabashed about being on the left of politics but one needn’t occupy the same ground as him in order to understand either his arguments or his anger. One need only do a Google image search for ‘Daily Mail front pages’ to understand why the Mail’s protests have garnered relatively little support, with one predictable exception being Brendan O’Neill writing on The Spectator’s blog.
Under the title, ‘The anti-tabloud snobs are the real bigots’, O’Neill argues that:
If Osborne did intentionally drive that van into Muslim worshippers, which a court must establish, then he and he alone is surely responsible. It is outrageous to suggest that anyone else, be they Mail journalist or alt-right YouTuber, bears responsibility for the intentional wrongdoing of others. Worse, the implication that tabloid readers are on the cusp of ‘hysteria’, that they’re instructed from on high ‘how to think and feel’, is a rotten libel against the working people who read these papers.
This is largely the argument Dacre makes in his editorial and it would be a fine point if they both didn’t ignore the reality of life in those places where ‘working people’ (horrible and, frankly, risible phrase) still read newspapers and believe what’s written. A few even believe it with a level of fury that even Martin Rowson would struggle to match.
O’Neill accuses Rowson and The Guardian of snobbery but the real snobbery here is the inverted snobbery that would portray the working classes as being somehow wiser than the liberal elite simply because they’re not the liberal elite. It’s the same romantic primitivism as found throughout Dacre’s sneeringly unctuous editorial and none of it bears much scrutiny. I don’t know how long it was since O’Neill (or, for that matter, Dacre) last moved among the working classes they claim to know better than any of us but I can confirm that we (yes, I count myself as one of them) do talk among ourselves about what’s written in the newspapers and some of us do believe what we read.
The newspapers know this already, of course. If they didn’t then why did The Sun run the headline ‘It’s the Sun Wot Won It’ in 1992 and why have they gone out of their way to influence every election since? Why else would their atrocious smears about Hillsborough be atrocious smears if they hadn’t encouraged readers to believe the worst about Liverpool fans? Even Dacre himself admits as much. ‘Our campaign to bring Stephen Lawrence’s murderers to justice […] did more to improve race relations in this country than anything the Guardian has ever achieved’. Indeed. Newspapers influence opinion. Point well made, Mr Dacre.
Yet none of this is to concede that the newspapers have the ultimate say. Newspapers can claim, like the Russians, that they have no influence on a voting public. Yet that is to assume that influence has to be all or nothing when it’s really somewhere in between. Newspapers shape opinion and opinion shapes the newspapers. These circuits are not always obvious and just as people can fall into habits of thought, so too can journalists, editors and proprietors.
That’s perhaps why Rowson’s cartoon seemed to strike home with Dacre. A few have described the cartoon as crass but, really, being crass is what most cartoonists strive for and which a very few are lucky enough get paid to do for a living. ‘Crass’ means ‘lacking discrimination and sensibility’ and Rowson might well be crass by suggesting that the editor who can write about the ‘the fascist Left’, the ‘half-witted reader’s letter’, and the ‘REAL purveyors of hate’ might be prone to mock anger and rabble rousing in the name of good copy. Rowson might also be crass for suggesting that people are influenced by the arguments they read in newspapers when, clearly, somebody like Brendan O’Neill would never be so influenced as to write a defence. And it would be crass to suggest that constant warnings about an Islamic danger might not help shape the political climate of a country or push some impressionable people into committing acts they might not have otherwise committed.
So, yes, Rowson is crass but, at the same time, it looks like he is spot on. All that’s implied by Rowson’s cartoon is there in the editorial: the cruel barbs, the faux anger, and the same frenzied myopic worldview. It is also clearly the effort of Dacre given that the writer repeats the same comic mannerism as reported in Adrian Addison’s recent book ‘Mail Men: The Unauthorized story of the Daily Mail’. There it was reported that ‘Dacre also had a weakness for showy French and Latin phrases’. In this case he uses (and misspells) the French word ‘jejune’ when describing Owen Jones as ‘the Guardian’s jejeune and excitable Leftwing columnist’.
If it was written by Dacre, then today, at least, we have one reason to celebrate him. What today’s storm in the fur cup has shown is that some people in power take cartoons to heart and that cartoons can humiliate those that we thought we well beyond insult.
So, thank you Paul Dacre. Today you made cartooning great again.