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Cynicism and cartooning.

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Tuesday 12 February 2002


People have different ways of reading newspapers. When I read a newspaper, because I am interested in politics, I go straight to the page where I can find the political cartoon. In fact, it’s not a bad way to get to the highlights of the day’s news because most Australian political cartoonists have the ability to get to the heart of an issue with a wicked sense of humour or irony.  


Today’s cartoonists such as Alan Moir, Bruce Petty, or Cathy Wilcox (to mention just a few) compare very favourably with the greats of former years such as Norman Lindsay, David Low or Emile Mercier. 


Recently, however, I had the opportunity of reviewing cartoons to illustrate a commentary on all the NSW State elections of the 20th Century. The published result - although I may be biased because I chose them - is a wonderful catalogue of political cartooning for the whole of the past century.  


Nevertheless, as I looked at them, I started to have some misgivings about the impact of a steady diet of such drawings. One by one they make you laugh or wince appropriately at the foibles or hypocrisies of politicians, but taken as a whole the commentary is very, very negative. They give such an unrelievedly bleak picture of politicians and the whole political process. I started to think about the impact of cartoons on the popular perception of Australian politics, and I was a little disturbed by what I was thinking.  


The problem is not with individual cartoons. No, the problem comes from a steady diet, week after week, and year after year, of images of politicians as liars, cheats, compromisers and fools. Whereas other mass media journalists are expected to report fairly objectively and without bias, there is no such expectation for cartoonists. When I speak of bias here I don’t mean a preference for the Liberal Party or the Labor Party. Most cartoonists make no distinction here. No, what I mean by bias here is that virtually all the images of politicians and politics are negative. It is almost impossible to find a cartoon that says something positive about politics.  


My guess would be that the proportion of good people and bad people in politics is pretty much the same as in the general community. Moreover, there is a good argument that this is as it should be if they are to an accurate representation of the Australian people. A popular image of Australian politics as the arena for liars and cheats, with no ethical concerns and no interest in the nation except their own careers, is very unfair not only to the profession of politics, but to the obvious successes of the Australian political system.  


In any ranking of political systems over the last hundred years or so Australia would have to be very close to the top. We tend to settle our problems by worthwhile compromises that are infinitely preferable to the civil wars, revolutions, ethnic violence, or class riots that are the alternative.  


Back to cartoonists. The negative image of politicians and politics cannot be laid exclusively at their door. The biggest culprits, in fact, are the politicians themselves. Vote for my gang; the other gang is so much worse! Still, the result of such an unrelieved diet of negativity is that for most Australians at the beginning of the 21st Century the profession of politics ranks down with used car salesmen and child abusers. This is not healthy in the long term.  


What should individual cartoonists do in this situation? I don’t think that they should change their general approach, although there are some stock images that suggest laziness or a creative block for the artist. In general, I believe that the lampooning of politicians does much more good than harm.  


There is a great democratic value in satire. Yet, I do think that the social pressures all added together are dangerously negative about the profession of politics. Where are the balancing positive images? They are not going to come from cartoonists, because images of honourable politicians are not funny, and unfunny drawings will not be published.  


Perhaps, then, we need to think of other institutions in society making up for the cynicism to which the cartoonists contribute. Perhaps we need to take civics education in our schools more seriously. Perhaps we can ask text journalists in the mass media to be a bit more diligent in giving praise where it is due.  


On this matter, I can think of a few print journalists writing in major Australian journals whose profound cynicism leaves most cartoonists in the shade. Basically, I don’t know the answer. I just have a niggling feeling that cynicism has gone too far.  


Guests on this program:


Michael Hogan  

Research Associate  

Government and International Relations  

University of Sydney


Further information:


The Drawing Board