Press watchdog says 'Independent' cartoon of Israeli PM was not anti-semitic

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The Independent Online

The Press Complaints Commission has rejected a complaint on behalf of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that a cartoon depicting him in The Independent was anti-semitic.

The cartoon, by Dave Brown, had shown Mr Sharon eating a baby, surrounded by helicopter gunships, while saying: "What's wrong ... You never seen a politician kissing babies before?"

The Israeli embassy accused Mr Brown's "gruesome appalling image" of anti-semitism. The newspaper argued it was a legitimate comment on the policies of Mr Sharon's Likud party.

Mr Brown had based his cartoon on Francisco Goya's Saturn devouring one of his children. The Israeli leader claimed it made play on the so-called "blood libel", a centuries-old smear on the Jewish people that they slaughtered Christian children in order to use the blood in their rituals.

The PCC ruled that The Independent had "clearly intended to satirise" Mr Sharon's policies. The Israeli leader had been singled out "not only as an individual but also as the head of a government, and the leader of a political party".

The watchdog said it received around 100 complaints about the cartoon, but backed The Independent, having "examined the newspaper's explanation about what had motivated the cartoon".

Simon Kelner, editor in chief of The Independent, welcomed the Commission's adjudication.

"In terms of freedom of expression, it is vitally important that we are able to publish a piece of opinion which is critical of an individual's politics without being accused of racism.

"The cartoon used hard-hitting imagery, which was justifiable to convey a strong political message."

Mr Brown also expressed pleasure that the PCC had "reached the right decision". He said his cartoon was a satirical comment on a Sharon-ordered Israeli army attack on Gaza city which, in his view, was linked to garnering votes in Israeli elections due three days later.

The PCC ruling stated: "There was no reason for the Commission to disbelieve the cartoonist's position - published in the newspaper and submitted as part of its evidence - that he had taken the view that the attack on Gaza city was a form of 'macabre electioneering' whose equivalent in a less fraught situation might be the more traditional stunt of kissing babies. He explained that this brought to mind the Goya painting and its depiction of Saturn, who is driven by paranoia into consuming his own children.

"The Commission accepted this explanation."

Though the Commission "recognised that the cartoon had caused great offence to a significant number of people", it did not consider "that there was anything particularly prejudicial to Mr Sharon's race and religion about satirising him in this way".

It would be "unreasonable to expect editors to take into account all possible interpretations of material they intend to publish".

Thus it rejected the embassy's complaint, under Clause 13 of the PCC Code of Conduct, which bans "prejudicial or pejorative reference" to a person's race or religion.

Mr Brown said: "I had gone out of my way to avoid any Jewish symbolism. I deliberately had not put an Israeli flag [which features the Star of David] on the helicopters, in case they had been mistaken for Jewish symbols instead of symbols of Israel.

"It was the time of the Israeli elections and the Israeli government had deliberately used so-called anti-terrorism measures as a piece of electioneering."

He had attached a Likud rosette to Mr Sharon, again to "make it clear this was about party policy not Jewishness".

The PCC accepted "there was nothing in the cartoon that referred to Mr Sharon's religion at all".

It added: "Of course it is well known that the Israeli Prime Minister is Jewish, but he is also a public figure of the sort that newspapers frequently satirise or criticise, and it is not the Commission's job to interfere with newspapers' rights to comment on individuals unless there is an issue under the code."

A spokeswoman for the Israeli embassy said it would issue a statement in due course.