New Zealand Media Council rubbishes measles cartoon

The New Zealand Media Council has upheld a complaint against the cartoonist for the Otago Daily times, whose cartoon making light of the Samoan measles epidemic, provoked domestic and international uproar this month. 

In a ruling published on Monday, the Media Council found the cartoon found that had "no redeeming qualities […] it was a weak attempt at humour.”

The measles epidemic has now claimed 79 lives, the vast majority of whom are young children and has infected over 5,550 people.

The Kiwi media regulator made it clear that cartoons seldom meet the "high bar" required for it to uphold a complaint but that the illustration, by the newspaper's long-serving cartoonist, Garrick Tremain had done so "by a significant margin".

Tremain's cartoon was based on an attempted pun on the dual meaning of spots. It depicted two women leaving a travel agency. One woman said to the other: "I asked What are the least popular spots at the moment? She said The ones people are picking up in Samoa".

The ruling states: “Cartoons often deal with grave situations and can make fun of unfunny events; by their nature they will often cause offence. That is a freedom to be defended.

“However even with cartoons there is a line of gratuitous offence and hurt which when crossed can constitute a breach of the professional standards by the media. This is such a cartoon.”

Since the cartoon's publication on December 3, the Media Council received 130 complaints about the material. The Otago Daily Times itself received some 2000 complaints within 24 hours. 

Using five complaint letters as a representative sample of the public reaction, the council found the cartoon “gratuitously hurtful and discriminatory.”

One such letter, by Dianne Sharma Winter, called the cartoon a “pathetic racist slant,” and the newspaper's subsequent apology a “joke.”

“Aside from the fact this isn't funny and there's no real potential for a joke to be had here, even as the edgiest satire, it utilises the tired old trope of reducing Samoa to a holiday destination as its primary function - over the grief of an unfolding tragedy. Talk about tone-deaf,” she said.

The council wrote the cartoon broke unspoken rules of cartooning and did not show “human understanding” of the suffering in Samoa.

“We note that other cartoonists have commented on the unspoken rule of cartooning - 'punch up, not down'. This cartoon broke that rule. A way of testing this is to ask, could any reasonable New Zealander who saw the cartoon have considered it funny or an expression of a presentable point of view on a topical issue? The answer is no," the ruling said. 

The ruling also reflected on the response from the Otago Daily Times, which published a total of three apologies following the cartoons publication.

The first two responses were brief and published in the face of online backlash. The Council said they showed the editor and cartoonist did not understand what they had done wrong.

A third apology, published in print and online on December 5, addressed complaints in greater detail and promised to make scrutiny of cartoons part of the newspaper's daily news conference meetings. 

“The cartoon should not have been selected for the editorial page. It should not have been published," editor Barry Stewart wrote. 

Tremain said in a December 4 interview with Radio New Zealand: "It's a very poor piece of timing for such a cartoon."

But he rejected suggestions that he owed the people of Samoa an apology: "[I have] apologised to those who've spoken to me for the fact that I've upset them. That was not my intention. But if you think that I should issue an apology to the Samoan nation, well I don't agree with you,"  

The Council found the work was based on an "us and them" mentality.

“We have no doubt that this cartoon would not have been published if the 52 babies and children and the 10 adults had died in Oamaru for instance," the ruling read. 

“We consider it highly discriminatory. It has a racist quality, being that other lives do not matter as 'ours' do. It invites laughter at an epidemic that is causing illness and death, the implication being this is acceptable because the victims are 'not us'."

In addition to improving editorial processes, The Otago Daily Times has committed to heal the relationship between the newspaper and the Samoan community.

Deloitte has been engaged to review the processes that led to the cartoon’s publication, and Garrick Tremain’s work will not be published until the review is complete. The Media Council has called for this review to be made public when it is finished.

Stewart has also met with members for the Dunedin Samoan community to whom he apologised and committed to assist their response to the measles crisis. 

A summary of the ruling was published in Monday’s Otago Daily Times editorial pages.

Tremain declined to comment on the cartoon when approached by the Samoa Observer earlier this month.

But recent output on his personal website during his suspensions suggests he remains unrepentant for the cartoon. One cartoon published by Tremain online in the week after the fiasco depicted himself dumped inside a rubbish bin adjacent to another labelled as containing an "editor's spine".

The Media Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher, Rosemary Barraclough, Katrina Bennett, Liz Brown, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Jonathan MacKenzie, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.

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