UPDATE: This story has been updated at the bottom to include the full company-wide email sent to staff by the editor of The Australian defending the cartoon and calling on staff to support the illustrator.
With Joe Biden’s choice of a black woman as his running mate to challenge Donald Trump for the White House in November, there was always concern the debate would turn ugly.
Most people just didn’t think it would be an Australian outlet that would be first out of the gate with such racially motivated commentary.
A cartoon published in The Australian newspaper on Friday has sparked outrage and been met with a chorus of condemnation from politicians, media members, the public and a former prime minister who have labelled the cartoon “appalling”, “repulsive”, “disgusting” and “shameful”.
The cartoon depicts Mr Biden saying: “It’s time to heal a nation divided by racism ... So I’ll hand you over to this little brown girl while I go for a lie down.”
Even in contrast to the hyper-partisan media environment of the US, many expressed anger at the reputational damage such cartoons can have on perceptions of Australia overseas.
“This is going to make news in America. People won’t be able to believe what a fetid backwater Australia is,” lamented media personality Dom Knight.
Social media has seen a flood of leaders and commentators denouncing the Rupert Murdoch owned newspaper for its ongoing racism.
Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd called the Australian born media tycoon “a mouthpiece for Trump” and said the cartoon was “gross even by Murdoch’s gutter standards”.
“If The Australian has any respect for decency and standards it must apologise immediately, and never again publish cartoons like this,” said Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus.
“The Australian should pull today's offensive cartoon off their website, and issue an immediate apology,” said Labor MP Andrew Leigh.
“It diminishes us all,” echoed Shadow Minister for Cities and Multicultural Affairs, Andrew Giles.
“I cannot believe they keep publishing this guy's garbage,” commented ABC journalist Matt Bevan, who routinely covers US politics.
“If this was published in an American newspaper there would be street protests demanding he be fired. And he would be.”
“I'm working hard here to try and figure out what the joke is supposed to be... is it that... Joe Biden is old and therefore a casual racist? Even though he clearly isn't a racist?”
Perhaps the cartoon is trying to offer a cynical take on Mr Biden’s choice in picking a black woman for his Vice President position, but for many online, the satirical purpose of the cartoon was hard to parse.
The Australian attempts to defend Biden cartoon
Yahoo News Australia has contacted the newspaper and sought comment from Editor-in-Chief Chris Dore who did not responded to requests.
However Mr Dore briefly sought to defend the cartoon, and illustrator Johannes Leak, to questions posed by The Guardian, saying “Johannes was quoting Biden’s words” and pointing to a tweet the 77-year-old candidate posted on Thursday.
However that tweet was quite clearly not referring to Kamala Harris but a hypothetical little girl in America who would be inspired by her appointment as Vice President. Mr Dore did not respond further when this was put to him, The Guardian said.
While News Corp Australia dominates the industry, many other journalists have sought to distance the media at large from the cartoon.
The cartoonist, Johannes Leak, has followed in the footsteps of his father Bill Leak who also courted controversy as a cartoonist at The Australian, particularly for one drawing depicting indigenous Australians as drunkards and criminals.
“Does Johannes Leak set out to offend?” wondered Media Watch’s Paul Barry. “This is truly awful. He should be ashamed of himself.”
The right-wing newspaper is well known for its concerted attack campaign on Sudanese-Australian woman Yassmin Abdel-Magied, which she says drove her from the country.
Among critics, The Australian, along with its News Corp stablemates like The Daily Telegraph and The Herald Sun, is also well known for printing racially motivated cartoons that are derogatory towards minorities.
Last month, The Australian was criticised over a Black Lives Matters cartoon depicting a black protester kneeling on the neck of Lady Liberty, saying “I’m fighting for the right to do what I hate”. Ironically, the protest movement is about racial justice and stamping out systemic racism in policing and public policy.
Meanwhile in 2018, New Corp’s Herald Sun drew unflattering headlines around the world for a racist depiction of African American tennis player Serena Williams.
The backlash to the latest cartoon is genuine, but the latest episode is hardly surprising.
“Ageist, racist and sexist in one cartoon – the trifecta,” one Twitter user remarked on Friday.
Editor defends cartoon to staff
Late on Friday, The Australia’s Editor-in-Chief Chris Dore sent an e-mail to staff explaining and defending the cartoon. That note was later sent to everyone at the company by News Corp Australia executive Campbell Reid.
The explanation blamed a lack of knowledge of “source material and relevant background” to understanding the cartoon. Referencing a similar episode in January when a non-editorial employee quit citing the company’s stance on climate change, the latest note also took aim at rival media publications for “deliberately” driving the criticism.
The correspondence was leaked to Yahoo News Australia by staff, with one employee saying “the company deserves to pay”.
Read the full e-mail below.
Internal e-mail sent to staff at News Corp Australia
Friday, 14 August 2020
As you will know, Johannes Leak's cartoon published in the paper today has created an intense negative reaction, including outrageous accusations the cartoon was inspired by racism or is intended to promote racism.
I know many of you will be confronted by these criticisms over the next few days, so I want to help you understand the context.
The words "little black and brown girls" belong to Joe Biden, not Johannes, and were uttered by the presidential candidate when he named Kamala Harris as his running mate yesterday; he repeated them in a tweet soon after.
As many commentators in the US have noted, Biden is accused of using racial identity as a political weapon, and that is exactly the point Johannes was making in the cartoon, using Biden's language. The intention of Johannes's commentary was to ridicule identity politics and demean racism, not perpetuate it.
Clearly context is everything in our business, and while we know our readers are widely read and informed not everyone will be across every piece of source material or relevant background, particularly when it comes to a cartoon. We certainly have to be aware of our content being misconstrued, sometimes unintentionally, often wilfully, based on readers not having the full context readily before them. It's worth remembering cartoons are meant to be provocative and confronting.
We are not immune from criticism, nor should we be, that is our business, but it is important to note that much of the momentum creating fury around these issues, as we saw in January over the bushfires, is deliberately driven by rivals in the media. That's not an excuse, it just means we have to be alive to the likely backlash when we venture into contentious areas, as we do every day.
Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, the result is often very abusive and extremely personal missives directed at all of us.
Thankfully our readers understand our values and appreciate the quality of our work.
It should go without saying, but certainly needs to be clearly enunciated, that each of us at The Australian utterly oppose racism in all its guises.
I would also like to point out that when one of our own, who we dearly love and value, faces such vile, personal and unwarranted attacks, as Johannes Leak has today, it's important that we rally around him and show him support.
The original Biden tweet is included below.
Do you have a story tip? Email: email@example.com.