Nothing has been more depressing about the so-called ‘cancel culture’ – where a group of people, often using social media, demand the excision of a public figure from his or her place in public life – than the speed with which one or two prominent newspapers have jumped on the bandwagon.
Newspapers and their websites are a crucial part of the vanguard in the battle to preserve free speech, and free speech by its very nature is often unpleasant to many who hear it.
This was not least why so many newspapers, nearly a decade ago, fought so hard against the plans by the Leveson inquiry to make what they printed subject, in the end, to government approval. Newspapers often print things governments dislike, and they dislike them usually because they are true. They have a vital part to play in upholding democracy.
But at the New York Times last month James Bennett, the editorial page editor, was sacked because he dared publish a piece by a Republican senator justifying the use of force in putting down the riots occasioned by the killing of George Floyd. It was not so much that the piece contradicted the line of the paper, as that it contradicted the line of Twitter, where the main mob deployed by the cancel culture is mobilised.
Then, earlier this week, Bari Weiss, a prominent New York Times columnist resigned very publicly from the paper, claiming it was being edited not by its notional editor, but by Twitter. The paper has long been known for its liberal sensitivities, but the sacking of Mr Bennett was a lurch into illiberalism that has shocked many of its devotees.
Now a British newspaper equally renowned for its liberal agenda, the Guardian, has announced it is not renewing the contract of Steve Bell, its cartoonist of almost 40 years’ standing. He has been accused of using anti-semitic tropes and of engaging in racism towards other minorities, notably in a depictions of Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, as a bull. The British Tamil Conservatives wrote: “It’s anti-Hindu. It portrays the Home Secretary, of Hindu origin, as a cow. A sacred symbol for Hindus. It’s racist and misogynist. It’s plainly unacceptable! It may constitute a hate crime.”
Few Telegraph readers, I among them, will sympathise with Mr Bell’s political views. But he makes a formidable impact precisely because he takes no prisoners, and stands in a direct line in his art from Hogarth and the most virulent Georgian cartoonists.
Like Hogarth, Bell is often deeply distasteful and verges on the obscene; his claim that he is not racist requires serious debate. He seeks to mock and to revile people of whom he disapproves by making them into grotesques, and he has over the years done this with little regard to their race. A revolting cartoon on the death of Margaret Thatcher, whom he vilified for years, showed her going to Hell but asking: “Why is this pit still open?”
Lefties loved it; the rest of us were disgusted, but took it as the price we pay for living in a free society. He recently depicted Michael Gove as a goat; Boris Johnson is depicted with a backside for his face (and, in the same cartoon featuring Ms Patel, with a ring through his nose and horns on his head). In Mr Bell’s view, being Jewish, or Hindu, may not exempt someone from being worthy of attack in the most offensive way. It is what he has done to scores of white politicians over four decades. He is an equal opportunity cartoonist.
His critics argue that there is a world of difference between depicting Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, meeting Theresa May while a Palestinian roasts in the fireplace behind them (a cartoon of 2018 that Mr Bell’s editor refused to publish) and repeatedly deriding John Major, as he famously did in the 1990s, by depicting him wearing his underpants over his trousers.
I find Mr Bell’s repeated attacks on Netanyahu deeply unpleasant, but in a free society one should not deny him the chance to make his points. It is also far from certain that most of his newspaper’s readers would disagree with him, the cause of Palestinians have been dear to their hearts for many years, and Mr Netanyahu one of their favourite hate-figures.
Mr Bell is accused of is not drawing a distinction between the activities of the state of Israel (against which a perfectly rational case can be made, even if one does not agree with it – and I generally don’t) and broadcasting a blanket dislike of Jews (for which a rational case cannot be made). There is a sensitivity to anti-semitic tropes, which he himself has satirised, making the point that he dislikes Israeli policy because of what it is, not because of who actually executes it.
Some of his cartoons – in particular those featuring Jews as puppet masters – have been likened to those that used to appear in Nazi publications. He has been his own worst enemy – and there is, as the old joke goes, some competition for that post, by not making a convincing case for his lack of anti-semitism. Perhaps he is so convinced he isn’t one that he feels he doesn’t need to, but it might have helped him concede that there was scope for debate on the issue. His editor, for one, seems to have thought so.
His depiction of Ms Patel with horns coming from her head and a ring through her nose was decreed especially offensive because of the bovine’s sacredness to the Hindu religion. I don’t doubt it was appalling, and it is quite likely that Mr Bell has little time for religion generally (though it would be good to see him engage quite so robustly with unpleasant Muslims as he does with the Jews, Christians and Hindus of whom he disapproves). But it will strike many people as the sort of thing a politically-driven left-wing cartoonist does to a Conservative Home Secretary, and as part of our cherished commitment to freedom of expression.
One doubts Mr Bell will starve from a want of work. He has considerable talent, even if some of his views and the means by which he conveys them are pretty repellent, and he will find a canvas for his work. I hope he does, much as I disagree with almost every view I have ever seen him express. For we technically live in a free society, though one just made a fraction less so by the editor of the Guardian’s decision to dismiss her problematical cartoonist, a man of a type that only a truly free society can sustain.