The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by the publication of a Cartoon by Mark Knight in the Herald Sun on 10 September 2018. The cartoon depicted Ms Serena Williams on a tennis court, jumping in the air with her arms out to her sides and her hands in fists above a broken tennis racquet. A baby’s pacifier was depicted on the ground in front of the broken tennis racquet. In the background, an umpire was shown saying “Can you just let her win?” to a woman standing on the other side of the net. The cartoon referred to an incident during a tennis match between Ms Williams and Ms Naomi Osaka.
In response to complaints received by the Council, 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 or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, unless doing so is sufficiently warranted in the public interest (General Principle 6). The Council noted that complaints had raised concerns that the depiction of Ms Williams had features that may cause it to be an offensive and sexist representation of a woman and a prejudicial racial stereotype of African-American people generally, rather than an actual caricature of Ms Williams’ physical features.
Specifically, concern was expressed that the cartoon depicted Ms Williams with large lips, a broad flat nose, a wild afro-styled ponytail hairstyle different to that worn by Ms Williams during the match and positioned in an ape-like pose. Ms Williams’ features contrasted with those of Ms Osaka who, while of Japanese-Haitian descent, is depicted as white with blonde hair, lacking any particularly distinguishing or exaggerated features. It was also noted that the cartoon should be considered in the context of the history of caricatures based on race and historical racist depictions of African Americans.
The publication said that the cartoon was in response to Ms Williams’ “outburst” on the court which attracted global headlines following the US Open final on 9 September 2018. It said it was depicting the moment when, in a highly animated tantrum, Ms Williams smashed a racquet and loudly abused the chair umpire calling him a thief, a liar and threatening that he would never umpire her matches again. It said it wanted to capture the on-court tantrum of Ms Williams using satire, caricature, exaggeration, and humour, and the cartoon intended to depict her behaviour as childish by showing her spitting a pacifier out while she jumps up and down. It rejected suggestions that the cartoon positioned Ms Williams in an ape-like pose and noted Ms Williams did have a large ponytail hairstyle on the day.
It said that the cartoon was not intended to depict negatively any race or gender and was drawn in a style that the cartoonist has drawn over several decades and was only intended to be a ‘sporting cartoon’ for the publication’s local readership. It said Ms Osaka was not depicted as white skinned and was shown with a slightly darker skin colour than the umpire. It also said Ms Osaka was shown with hair with blond tips to reflect her hair at the time.
The Council notes 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 usually 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 accepts that the cartoon was illustrated in response to the events that occurred at the US Open final on 9 September 2018 that attracted global attention. The Council considers that the cartoon uses exaggeration and absurdity to make its point but accepts the publisher’s claim that it does not depict Ms Williams as an ape, rather showing her as ‘spitting the dummy’, a non-racist caricature familiar to most Australian readers. Nonetheless, the Council acknowledges that some readers found the cartoon offensive. However, the Council also accepts that there was a sufficient public interest in commenting on behaviour and sportsmanship during a significant dispute between a tennis player with a globally high profile and an umpire at the US Open final. As such, the Council does not consider that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid causing substantial offence, distress or prejudice, without sufficient justification in the public interest. Accordingly the Council concludes that its Standards of Practice were not breached.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication):
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.”