The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by the publication of a cartoon in The Daily Telegraph in print on 16 November 2022 captioned “NOT THE QUESTION YOU WANT TO HEAR FROM AN ISIS BRIDE…”. The cartoon depicts a Muslim woman dressed entirely in black wearing a full veil or niqab and only showing her eyes. The woman is depicted asking a man, who is standing behind a ticket box that has the words “ALP FUND RAISER TICKETS” on the front of it, “HOW MUCH PER HEAD?”.
In response to a complaint received, the Council asked the publication to comment on whether the material breached its Standards of Practice which require the publication to take reasonable steps to 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 (General Principle 6). The Council noted that the complaint raised concerns that the cartoon was offensive to Muslims.
In response, the publication said the cartoon should be considered in context of the news of the day. It said that as reported on its front page and in its editorial, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) had proposed a fundraising dinner in Sydney’s western suburbs. The publication said the Mayors of Fairfield, Liverpool and Campbelltown announced they were attending the dinner to confront the Prime Minister over his handling of the repatriation of women colloquially known as “ISIS Brides” - widows of Australian ISIS terrorists who were being brought back to Australia from camps in Syria. It said the mayors were angry about what they viewed as secrecy and a lack of consultation from the federal government that these women would be repatriated within their communities. It said that this action had caused great distress to families living within Western Sydney who had been refugees fleeing ISIS.
In relation to the cartoon, the publication said it reminds us of the violent reality of terrorism and the Prime Minister’s tone-deaf attitude in holding an ALP fundraiser squarely in the heart of where these women were to be resettled. The publication said the cartoonist deliberately refrained from depicting the figure graphically, noting that the words in the speech bubble are chilling enough.
The publication said the cartoonist drew the figure based on factual information and photographs of widows of Australian ISIS terrorists available online. It said the cartoonist had considered the harmful potential that readers could associate the figure with women of Muslim faith, who may also wear niqabs, and for this reason captioned the cartoon to clearly explain that the figure depicted was an ‘ISIS bride’. The publication said there is absolutely no intention for the cartoon to cause offence to Muslims, noting many of those who suffered at the hands of ISIS are Muslims themselves.
The Council recognises that cartoons are expressions of opinion that often use exaggeration and absurdity to make a point on serious issues. For this reason, the Council has consistently given significant latitude to cartoons when considering whether a publication has taken reasonable steps to avoid substantial offence, distress or prejudice. However, the Council considers that the significant public interest in allowing freedom of expression must be weighed against the equally significant public interest in not promoting prejudice.
The Council also considers that a stated absence of intention by publication to cause offense, distress, or prejudice to a particular group or individual is not relevant to the consideration of whether a publication has taken reasonable steps to comply with its Standards of Practice. The Council notes that particularly in the context of race, ethnicity and religion, that publications should exercise great care to avoid going beyond exaggeration and absurdity by using graphical depictions that may instead reinforce offensive and prejudicial stereotypes.
In relation to this, the Council notes the cartoon’s depiction of the ‘ISIS bride’ dressed in black wearing a full veil or niqab has the potential to associate all Muslim women who wear such clothing with Islamic terrorism. However, the Council concludes that the cartoon’s specific reference to ISIS brides in the caption, along with the comments made in a front page news report and accompanying editorial in the same edition of the cartoon, that some western suburb mayors had expressed concern with the ALP’s decision to repatriate ISIS brides into their communities, was sufficient to demonstrate that the publication took reasonable steps to comply with General Principle 6.
Relevant Council Standards
This Adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
“Publications must take reasonable steps to:
- 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.”