It was recently reported that Apple boss Steve Jobs – responsible for infesting the world with iPods, iPhones, iPads and other iCrap – had banned a cartoonist from one of his apps because his material was "objectionable"; and then that Jobs had changed his mind and allowed "professional political satirists and humorists" back on his systems.
What was interesting about this story had nothing to do with the caprice of digitocrats, but lay in the reaction of the liberal chatterati. Many people expressed surprise and concern that Jobs should behave like that, presumably because they'd thought him a shiny new mixture of Gutenberg, Einstein and Buddha. I doubt, however, if the cartoonist was surprised.
Cartoons as a medium, particularly political ones, occupy a curious, not quite respectable twilight place in the realm of journalism, often integral to the topography of a newspaper but also more than slightly semi-detached. Partly that's because cartoons' relationship to other media, whether it's newspapers or one of Jobs's latest gizmos, is parasitical.
For nearly half a millennium, following the invention of printing, satirical engravings and etchings existed quite happily on their own.
Hogarth and Gillray sold all their work as individual prints, retailed from shops and kiosks that stretched from Charing Cross to St Paul's, and Cruikshank was doing the same long into the middle of the 19th century and after Punch had killed off most of the rest of the trade. In fact, the first daily political cartoon appeared in this country as late as 1900, when Francis Carruthers-Gould started working for the Westminster Gazette.
There is a spirit of independence woven into cartoonists' spiritual DNA. However much a good cartoon will enhance the journalism surrounding it, both its purpose and its effect is always to lower the tone.After all, one of the first and most enduring insults to be coined about popular journalism – calling it the Yellow Press – came courtesy of an 1890s cartoon, The Yellow Kid, which both Pulitzer and Hearst ran in their respective papers during the New York circulation wars of the 1890s.
So however useful we cartoonists are as licensed idiots, we're not quite safe either, not least because as satirists it's our job – and our vocation – to mock the rich and powerful, a group which rather noticeably and inconveniently includes the kind of people who own and edit newspapers and other media.
Sometimes, a proprietor or editor will actually encourage dissent among a paper's most instinctive dissidents It served Lord Beaverbrook and his cartoonists, including David Low and Vicky, to make a thing of their caricaturing him in his own papers. But this was a rare example of something less like free speech than self-indulgence.
For the most part, however, we keep schtum and cleanse our souls now and again by sneaking in coded messages (Carl Giles used to have tiny vignettes of Rupert Bear being tortured to death hidden in the background of his cartoons). We hope they won't notice, though sometimes we wish they will, and otherwise we just hunker down, swallow our pride and moan at interminable length in private to our colleagues about both proprietors and editors. Sometimes, though, it pays to go public. Apparently, after Rupert Murdoch took over the Sunday Times, he saw a Gerald Scarfe cartoon of Ronald Reagan and was heard to mutter: "Poor old Ronnie. We gotta get rid of this pinko artist!", although the only authority we have for this story is Scarfe himself, still working at the Sunday Times nearly three decades later.
When I was working on Scotland on Sunday during the Iraq war, the editor and I waged a war of attrition of our own – he wanting me to illustrate his (pro-war) editorials, while I insisted I was a visual columnist entitled to express his own opinion.
For the war's duration, I usually won, but in the months following, I'd be phoned by the art director after I'd filed to be told the editor had had "a better idea". I drew his idea for three weeks and then resigned by an email telling him that if he had such brilliant ideas for cartoons, maybe it was time he learned to draw.
That was bridling in the extreme, though I felt happier afterwards. Usually, like most people, we bend with the wind, but sensible editors will allow their cartoonists as free a rein as reasonable, within the bounds of public decency. That, after all, is why we're hired in the first place.
A longer version of this article appears in the British Journalism Review, Volume 21 Number 4, available from SAGE Publications, 1 Oliver's Yard, 55 City Road, London EC1Y 1SP. Subscription hotline: +44 (0)20 7324 8701. Email: [email protected]