In my Media Ethics session on Friday we were talking about the use of pictures, including issues of taste and decency. For example, we spent a while looking at the coverage of the Guardian coverage of the July 7 bombings, including the Readers' Editor's commentary on some very difficult decisions, some of which the paper perhaps got wrong.
Then we touched briefly on cartoons. I tried to find a way of explaining how last week's Steve Bell strips which featured, let's put this poltely, soldiers and camels and a four letter word, fitted with The Guardian's editorial code.
"Language: Respect for the reader demands that we should not casually use words that are likely to offend. Use swear words only when absolutely necessary to the facts of the piece, or to portray a
character in an article; there is almost never a case in which we need to use a swearword outside direct quotes. The stronger the swearword, the harder we ought to think about using it. Avoid using in headlines, pull quotes and standfirsts and never use asterisks, which are just a cop-out."
Rather surprised to find myself as 'Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells', I wrote to Readers' Editor Ian Mayes and admitted I couldn't reconcile the code with the cartoon. Could he?
Here's his reply:
No I can't either. I passed two or three letters of complaint to Steve via the editor of G2 and in a reply to her he undertook to lay off the more offensive expletives. One of the reasons why a couple of readers objected was that the cartoon in that form has a particular appeal to children, at least visually. I had some sympathy with that. The guidelines that you quote should certainly extend to printed material in cartoons and in this case Steve should have been reminded of them before rather than after one particular cartoon got into print. Matters of taste, having said that, are always difficult. The guidelines are guidelines intended to encourage contributors to be reasonable. Editors have an obligation to see that everyone is aware of them. Then we comes to the tricky matter of where editing stops and censorship begins ...
I leave that one to you and your students,
Thanks, Ian. I think this reply reflects very well on The Guardian... and was part of the reason why I had featured a couple of Steve Bell cartoons earlier in the session - for no better reason than I liked them... They both said something. And they made me laugh. So thanks, Steve.