First Dog and the ethics of being funny

15 April 2010

Written by: Christopher Scanlon

Love them or hate them, political cartoons have a well established place in journalism.  So central have political cartoons become to journalism that they even have their  own Pulitzer: the  Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning which has been awarded since 1922.

This year’s winner was Mark Fiore for his work published on the San Francisco Chronicle website – SFGate. His prizewinning pieces were animated cartoons – an emerging niche in the field.

In Australia, political cartoons have a special place in the political culture.  Regular readers of The Age are drawn into Michael Leunig’s world of watercoloured dogs, ducks and humans with over-sized heads.  Leunig’s cartoons have become a signature of The Age.

On occasion, cartoons have become the news story in their own right. Leunig’s cartoon ‘Thoughts of a Baby Lying in a Child Care Centre’, for example led to furious debate about child care.

At other times, political cartoonists tread a fine line between being funny – and defaming public figures. To shed some light on the perils and pitfalls of  political cartooning, I asked Crikey’s editorial cartoonist  First Dog on The Moon about the nuts and bolts of what he does.

A cartoonist since the age of eleven, First Dog has been cartooning for Crikey’s 11,000 full subscribers and 30,000 registered users for two years. What makes someone want to pursue a career in political cartooning?

‘Pretty much everything’ says First Dog. ‘I’m a bit of a wonk, I find political satire can be very funny. At least, funny political satire is funny.’

‘I get to feel like I know about what is going on in the world (even if I don’t actually know) and then I get to poke fun at it. It makes me feel far more important than I am — I’m sort of like an occasionally hilarious parasite.’

First Dog’s cartoons use mixed media and often feature animals and the faces of Australia’s most prominent politicians. A typical example of his work is ‘Things we knew all along!’ where First Dog depicts the Deputy Leader of the Opposition Julie Bishop as a death-staring robot, while the Minister for Health and Aging Nicola Roxon is depicted as a Muppet.

The online platform raises new questions about the boundaries for cartoonists. In  ‘Can the Internet rejuvenate editorial cartooning?’ for The Online Journalism Review, Mark Glaser argued that ‘the Internet has changed the way editorial cartoonists distribute their work and compete with others, while also allowing them to broaden their ideas with animations.’

First Dog agrees up to a point, although he sees Crikey’s format as the real point of difference between print and online. ‘I think it is more the size. Crikey is small and zippy — print publications are much slower’, he says.

The internet also raises questions about the audience. A cartoon intended for minor distribution, created for a particular audience, can end up on the on the other side of the world within minutes. The ability to ‘get’ the joke is often lost in translation.

So what guidelines do political cartoonists have? The Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA) Code of Ethics provides guidelines for it members with a total of twelve clauses that emphasise honesty, fairness, independence and respect for the rights of others.

Political cartooning seems to conflict with two of the MEAA’s ethical guidelines in particular:

‘Do not place unnecessary emphasis on personal characteristics, including race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, sexual orientation, family relationships, religious belief, or physical or intellectual disability’ and ‘Present pictures and sound which are true and accurate.  Any manipulation likely to mislead should be disclosed’

While there is a logic to these guidelines in the context of most other forms of journalism, the satire at the core of political cartooning, indeed the reliance on the visual inherent in cartooning seems to mean that political cartoonists will always sail close to the wind in terms of ethical considerations.

Perhaps more serious, is the risk of defamation, particularly in Australia where the notion of freedom of speech is vague.

‘Cartoons probably travel under the radar a bit, but I still have to pay attention to defamation issues’, says First Dog. ‘Also I have very sensible editors who are grown ups and who pay careful attention to these things. It sometimes seems like animals can say things that people can’t, but it isn’t really true. But it is often funnier.’

Does political correctness make satire more difficult for political cartoonists? First Dog says no. ‘I don’t think it is political correctness because that is not a real thing. People get offended or they don’t. Cruelty and racism and sexism are what they are.’

Nevertheless, political cartoonists have feelings too — even for those they target. ‘Sometimes I have to be mean and don’t enjoy that’ says First Dog. ‘And even worse, sometimes I enjoy being mean and I feel ashamed.’

Ally Forward is a final-year Bachelor of Journalism student at La Trobe University