The Australian Press Council has avoided condemning or supporting a controversial cartoon in The Australian that depicted a beer-drinking Aboriginal unable to remember his son’s name.
In a statement released today, it said the best outcome in the public interest was “to promote free speech and the contest of ideas”.
It said this had been achieved through the publication of two major op-ed pieces in The Australian – published on August 31 and yesterday – which had provided indigenous perspectives on the cartoon and shed light on the underlying social issues.
The articles were written by Roy Ah-See, chairman of NSW Aboriginal Land Council; and Gerry Moore, chief executive of the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC).
The cartoon by award-winning cartoonist Bill Leak received more than 700 complaints.
It depicted a beer-drinking Aboriginal unable to remember his son’s name when asked by a police officer to talk to him about personal responsibility.
The work was published in the wake of the Northern Territory juvenile detention abuse scandal.
In evaluating whether the cartoon breached standards, the council noted the extreme backlash as well as the strong defence by others who cited the overriding importance of free speech and freedom of the press.
“Many journalists, media commentators and other political cartoonists expressed their considerable unease with the particular cartoon, yet ultimately concluded that, in the interests of free speech, it should not be formally censured,” the council said in its statement.
It noted the difficulty in judging whether “an expression of opinion that has palpably caused offence to some members of the community is nevertheless sufficiently in the public interest”.
The Australian published a significant number of articles about Leak’s cartoon following its publication.
An editorial by the paper argued that “Bill Leak’s confronting and insightful cartoons force people to examine the core issues in a way that sometimes reporting and analysis can fail to do”.
Although the cartoon deals with responsibility, Mr Moore wrote in his op-ed there was a lack of responsibility by Leak and those who published the cartoon.
“Instead of mockery in a cartoon, real responsibility comes from constructively addressing these issues through community-developed and controlled programs that are showing genuine results,” he wrote in The Australian.
“The notion that the cartoon was needed to create conversation is offensive. SNAICC has been having that conversation — a nuanced conversation with communities, families, and agencies; not one that should be reduced to crass oversimplification — for decades.”
Mr Ah-See noted that The Australian had for decades played a constructive role in the coverage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs but said Leak’s work fell well short of the standards the paper had previously set.
“It also presented a misleading and hurtful picture of who we are,” he wrote.
The Council will take no further action.
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