Antisemitism, The Guardian, The Spectator and Editorial Standards

Photo by cottonbro studio on

Last week, the chairman of the BBC resigned.  The Guardian’s Martin Rowson chose to depict this with a cartoon showing Boris Johnson sat on a pile of money with Richard Sharp walking away holding a box.  Now, there is nothing unusual about those bare details. It’s usual to depict someone leaving their job, especially if sacked/pushed out, carrying a box of their belongings having cleared the desk.

However, there are some crucial details. First, Sharp is Jewish and Rowson, chose in the caricature to use stereotypical Jewish features. Perhaps that could be explained away as standard caricaturist cruelty.  However, look further and you spot that the box is labelled, not “The BBC” but “Goldman Sachs, a former employer of Sharp’s.  In the box, is a vampire squid and a mini Rishi Sunack -another former Goldman Sachs’ employee. Why does this matter?  It matters, because whilst this may seem to be a small detail in the cartoon, the nature of the genre is that important messages tend to be tucked away in the little details.

It matters because Goldman Sachs has been described, infamously as like a giant vampire squid, sucking into wherever there is money.  Goldman Sachs are also well known as a Jewish financial business.  In other words, the imagery of vampires and of creatures getting their tentacles in to everything all around the world is a well known antisemitic trope, part of the conspiracy theory that the world is under the control of a wealthy, secretive, sinister, Jewish cabal.

The image might be a small detail but it is an important one. What does Goldman Sachs have to do with Richard Sharp being the BBC Chairman? What does the image of Goldman Sachs being part of a cabal that exercises overdue influence in the places of power have to do with Sharp’s appointment and removal as BBC chairman.

When people first responded to point out the problems with the image, there was at first the usual pushback of “you are seeing things that are not there.”  However, Rowson later apologised.  In his apologise, he recognised that the imagery was offensive although he claimed that it was completely unintentional. He knew that Sharp was Jewish but this was far from the front of his mind when he drew the cartoon and he had never intended the connection to be there.  The Guardian also withdrew the cartoon, stating that it fell short of their editorial standards.

As a little follow up to the events, Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator has written an article arguing that if we are against cancel culture, then we should accept that Rowson has made a mistake and in effect his apology.  I want to come back to Nelson’s argument shortly but there is a fascinating additional detail to Nelson’s article too.  The Spectator chose to illustrate the article with, of all things a reproduction of the cartoon. Remember, this is a cartoon that the author and the publication in which it first appeared recognised to be seriously offensive due to the antisemitic tropes within it.  As far as I can tell, Nelson is not questioning that conclusion. 

It is normal, when commentating on something that should not have been published to only reproduce the offending material in so far as it is necessary to give evidence for what the problem was, when and only when that might be in dispute.  Anything else might be considered gratuitous.  I believe it deeply inappropriate for the Spectator to reproduce the cartoon and hope they will withdraw it.

Yet this links to the Guardian’s apology. The Guardian argued that the publication of the cartoon fell short of their editorial standards.  However, there is a bit of a problem here. The Guardian has a bit of form when it comes to publishing cartoons that focus on racially offensive stereotypes. Remember the previous portrayal of Priti Patel? It seems that when it comes to cartoons that their editorial standards are a little porous.  Not just cartoons though.  The other week Dianne Abbot had a letter published by their sister paper, the Observer arguing that Jews did not suffer from racism.  There was a similar apology to Rowson’s where she argued that she had inadvertently sent the first draft. Yet this still begged the question, how did a letter which presumably also fell short of their editorial standards.

The point is this. The decisions to publish the cartoon and the letter by the Guardian  and Observer along with the further decision by the Spectator to reproduce the cartoon were editorial decisions.  You cannot argue that something falls short of your editorial standards, when your editors are the ones making the decisions. Or, if your editor himself falls short of his own standards, you have a serious problem.

There are broader implications here.  There is a tendency when things go wrong to make central players passive.  Editorial standards were not passively broken.  The editors broke the standards.  We too can be tempted to speak as though we are passive when wrong things happen.  We should not.  We should take responsibility for our actions and decisions.

This is important because when we apologise, when we repent, when we are seeking to show evidence of change and when those affected are seeking reassurances that things will not happen again, then it is crucial that we take responsibility.  This is key to understanding how and why things went wrong.  Nelson has argued that Rowson’s apology should be accepted and failure to do so would be to play into the hands of cancel culture.  Similar arguments were made for accepting Abbot’s apology.

It’s worth saying that it is for those who have been offended/hurt to determine if and when to accept an apology and to offer forgiveness. This is not something for others from the outside to impose.  However, I would want to add that whilst there is a problem with cancel culture, that questioning an apology does not amount to cancel culture. It is reasonable to challenge whether an apology is full and genuine. This is not about dragging a reluctant sorry out of a school kid so everyone can go home.  It is important to ensure that those responsible for what went wrong take responsibility and understand why things went wrong.

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