Relations between journalists and politicians should never be too cosy, but being personally rebuked by a home secretary is always going to give an editor pause for thought.
Relations between journalists and politicians should never be too cosy, but being personally rebuked by a home secretary is always going to give an editor pause for thought. Especially if the editor – me – is white, the home secretary – Sajid Javid – is of Pakistani descent, and the topic is racism.
‘I don’t need you to tell me what racism is,’ Javid tweeted in response to my defence of a cartoon published in The New European last week, and republished on this page today.
It’s a slapdown that’s been retweeted and ‘liked’ thousands of times, and provoked many hundred more observations that this editor, this newspaper, this cartoonist must certainly be racist so-and-sos for ever publishing it.
We disagree. But first… how did we get here? Some explanatory backstory:
When, last week, regular New European cartoonist Neil Kerber submitted a rough sketch for the cartoon, I immediately thought it made an important point; a strong attack on the hostile environment cultivated in the Home Office, first by Theresa May, and latterly by Amber Rudd, who had just resigned, making way for Javid.
The irony that Javid, an immigrant’s son, had inherited the very same office that had been widely condemned over the threatened deportations of immigrants, seemed, to me, to be a fair commentary on a situation that had so scandalised the country.
So clear did this point seem to me, that it didn’t even register that the cartoon could be construed as racist, when it was, to me anyway, obviously about racism; the insidious race-based discrimination many consider to be at the heart of the Windrush scandal.
That the cartoon made its point in a provocative way didn’t overly concern me. That the cartoon might be seen as offensive to the government didn’t bother me either. This is what political cartoons do, and have done for generations.
So we published it, thought little more of it, and got on with enjoying the Bank Holiday weekend.
And then our columnist, Labour peer and anti-Brexit campaigner Andrew Adonis tweeted the cartoon. That’s when things began to go awry.
Javid tweeted a reply to his 62,000 followers: ‘Not like you, Andrew Adonis. You’re better than this.’
Then right-wing Westminster news website Guido Fawkes, which pumps out more offensive content than most, ran a one-line story headlined ‘Adonis tweets racist cartoon’, and reading, with typical offensiveness: ‘Adonis’ sad descent into madness continues.’
The majority of the many thousands of tweets that followed were absolutely sure the cartoon was a sickening act of blatant racism.
It was at this point I felt I had to defend Andrew Adonis, the cartoonist Neil Kerber, The New European, and myself, against charges of racism.
‘I see plenty of tweets accusing Andrew Adonis of racism for tweeting this. It’s not a racist cartoon. It’s a cartoon *about* racism – the racism that resulted in Windrush families being persecuted by a hostile Home Office,’ I wrote.
That’s when the home secretary publicly took me to task about my holding a view on whether something we’d published was racist or not.
Andrew Adonis decided to delete the tweet. Not because he thought it was racist – he doesn’t. But because Javid had been personally offended and because, on reflection, he thought the cartoon ‘in poor taste’.
Being in good taste is, quite rightly, fairly low down the priority list of political cartoonists. In fact, very often the poorer the taste, the more effective the message, which is why Steve Bell, Martin Rowson and Ben Jennings, to name just three, have won so many awards. Political cartoons frequently offend somebody. That’s largely the point of them.
But deleting the tweet created a new story, picked up by every national newspaper the next day, with variations of ‘Andrew Adonis apologises for posting ‘racist’ cartoon’. With the social media anger machine churning away, the so-called racism had become fact.
And nor did deleting the tweet stop the commentary on social media.
TV’s Piers Morgan, in characteristic style, captured the general mood in his tweet: ‘a) This is disgustingly racist. b) Sajid Javid’s father is dead. Shame on you, Lord Adonis.’
Sorry Piers, and everyone else who got hashtag-hot under the collar, but here is why neither Lord Adonis nor The New European feel any shame.
The point made in the cartoon is totally valid. The Windrush scandal was not just about competence. It was about race. The cartoon captured the irony in a policy which led to one home secretary departing the office, to be replaced by another whose parents could have fallen foul of the very same policy.
And where did the cartoonist get that idea from? From an interview Javid himself gave to the Sunday Telegraph. Comments that were reported widely and echoed by Javid in the Commons – suggesting this was a thought-through approach to how he would set out his views on the issue.
Indeed, the strong stance he took was credited with increasing pressure on the then home secretary Amber Rudd to go, which she duly did. So to remind you of what he said:
‘I’m a second-generation migrant. My parents came to this country, just like the Windrush generation.
‘They came to this country after the Second World War to help rebuild it, they came from Commonwealth countries, they were asked to come in to [do] work that some people would describe as unattractive – my dad worked in a cotton mill, he worked as a bus driver.
‘When I heard about the Windrush issue I thought, ‘That could be my mum, it could be my dad, it could be my uncle, it could be me’.’
This is what the cartoon is addressing. The irony of the new home secretary reconciling the fact that his parents could have been in line for deportation under his predecessors’ regime.
Admittedly, if you didn’t know about what Javid had said about his father, then the full irony might have been lost on you. But even if you didn’t, it makes the point; he was taking over control of a disgraceful policy that could have been used against his own parents.
Nobody at The New European wants to cause anybody personal hurt. But Javid spoke about his parents as part of a political interview. To accuse us of wilfully trespassing on his private grief (as many have done, though to his credit not Javid) is absurd.
Finally, Javid can tell me that as a white person I have no real perspective on the racism non-whites face. I’d agree completely. Certainly not in relation to someone who has suffered from it first hand.
But not to defend yourself from a charge of racism may give the impression you find within yourself some guilt.
The accusations of racism, either against myself, Andrew Adonis, Neil Kerber, or against any of the hundreds of people on Twitter who publicly shared our view that the cartoon is not racist, is abhorrent and unjustified.
We’re entitled to defend ourselves.
This cartoon is not racist. It’s about racism, which we abhor. Just as we abhor the Windrush scandal. Which is why those who genuinely felt angry at how that was allowed to happen should not join in the attempts to find racism where none exists.
We make no apology for printing it, and for doing so again today.
And we genuinely give Javid our best wishes in seeking to reverse the policy, culture and mindset of the Home Office regime he has inherited.
Matt Kelly, editor.