Colin Macguire vs. Mail & Guardian


Sat, Jul 15, 2017

Ruling by the Press Ombud

15 July 2017

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Mr Colin Macguire and those of Beauregard Tromp, deputy editor of the Mail & Guardian newspaper.

Macguire is complaining about a cartoon in the Mail & Guardian of 26 May 2017.

Complaint                                            

Macguire complains that the image and title of the cartoon were offensive as they were mocking the crucifixion of Jesus Christ (in clear sight of children).

The cartoon

The cartoon depicted former Eskom CEO Brian Molefe and two others “crucified” against Eskom power pylons and saying, “The captured life’s a piece of shit, when you look at it.” It also contained the words, “Eskom’s life of Brian”, with the words “A Zupta Python TragiComedy”. Pres Jacob Zuma and one of the Gupta brothers are walking away.

The arguments

Tromp says the cartoon played on a well-known parody of Christ’s story, namely “The Life of Brian”. He argues that most people would not regard the cartoon as mocking Christ “but rather taking a familiar idea and repurposing it for satire”.

He says the newspaper is sensitive to its readers’ various faiths and beliefs, and maintains that the cartoon was in good taste and sensitive, also to Christians. The language, he argues, was that of “mild profanity” – which “our robust publication and our readers are well able to endure and in fact appreciate”.

Macguire asks for proof that “most people” would find the cartoon acceptable – he says most people he knows regard a depiction of a corrupt CEO like Molefe being associated with “an absolutely non-corrupt and perfect Christ” as offensive. He wants to know why the cartoon did not instead portray Allah, Mohammed or Buddha – “or would that create a backlash from the more verbal Muslim etc. community?”

He also wants to know what information Tromp used to back his assumption that his readers would “appreciate” mild profanity – or any profanity, for that matter.

Analysis

The relevant parts of the Code of Ethics and Conduct may be the following:

·         Section 5.1: “Except where it is strictly relevant to the matter reported and it is in the public interest to do so, the media shall avoid discriminatory or denigratory references to people’s … religion, conscience, belief …”

·         Section 5.2: “The media has the right and indeed the duty to report and comment on all matters of legitimate public interest. This right and duty must, however, be balanced against the obligation not to publish material that amounts to … hatred that is based on … religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm”;

·         Section 7.1: “The media shall be entitled to comment upon or criticise any actions or events of public interest”; and

·         Section 7.2: “Comment or criticism is protected even if extreme, unjust, unbalanced, exaggerated and prejudiced, as long as it:

7.2.1. expresses an honestly-held opinion,

7.2.2. is without malice,

7.2.3. is on a matter of public interest;

7.2.4. has taken fair account of all material facts that are substantially true; and

7.2.5. is presented in such manner that it appears clearly to be comment.”

The essence of this complaint is that the cartoon was offensive as it was mocking the crucifixion of Christ.

I am weary of the word “offensive” in this regard. I have previously stated that this office should never find against a cartoon merely because some members of the public do not agree with the image or the message. I agreed that the “discomfort of the audience in receiving the artist’s ideas, does not of its own accord form an adequate basis for limitation of the right to freedom of expression”.

The word “mocking” is more serious, though. I interpret Section 5.1 of the Code to mean exactly that (where the media are asked to avoid discriminatory or denigratory references to people’s … religion, conscience, belief …).

At the same time, I should keep Section 7.1 in mind, which allows for comment or criticism of any actions or events of public interest – in other words, freedom of expression.

Of special importance in this regard is Section 7.2 which protects comment or criticism even if extreme, unjust, unbalanced, exaggerated and prejudiced (as long as it expresses an honestly-held opinion; is without malice; is on a matter of public interest; has taken fair account of all material facts that are substantially true; and is presented in such manner that it appears clearly to be comment).

The words “extreme, unjust, unbalanced, exaggerated and prejudiced” are not unique to the Code – they are also reflected in a finding of the Constitutional Court in a related matter.

I disregard Section 5.2 in this instance, as no reasonable argument can be made that the cartoon amounted to religious hatred which constituted incitement to cause harm.

The questions, therefore, boil down to the following:

·         Was the cartoon mocking Christ’s crucifixion?

·         If it was, was it sufficiently serious to outweigh the Mail & Guardian exercising its freedom of expression?

Macguire, with respect, has misread the cartoon. The way I read it is that the focus of the sketch was not Molefe, albeit that he was depicted quite large and in the centre of the cartoon. The real meaning, rather, was Zuma and Gupta walking away from the “crosses” – scot-free.

This, I think, is a parody of the widespread Christian belief that Christ has died to save people from their sins – that he took the guilt upon himself in order to let people go “scot-free”. Applied to the cartoon, Molefe was instrumental in portraying the message that he (and two others) had to shed the guilt, while Zuma and Gupta left the Eskom mess with impunity.

This made the cartoon a political statement, designed to shock, not meant to be humorous and intended to reflect on the nature of what is happening in the country, as the cartoonist perceived it.

The above is my interpretation of the cartoon and, I submit, a reasonable one which would be shared by many readers.

Macguire’s question about other religions also behoves some comment.

It is not against Christians’ faith to portray Christ either in a picture, a sketch or a movie; for Muslims, though, it is strictly prohibited to draw a picture of Mohammed – which represents a vital and material difference between the two religions.

I respect the reason given to me by Muslims for this prohibition, which is to prevent any worship of the Prophet, which is why the mere drawing of a picture of him may be seen as mocking the Muslim faith.

Buddhism is so small in this country that it is understandable that the cartoonist did not involve Buddha.

In any event, as far as I know neither Buddha nor Mohammed is believed to have died for the sins of others in order to make them scot-free.

In conclusion, I do not believe that the cartoon was:

·         mocking Christ or his crucifixion – instead, it used a concept with which many people are familiar to make the point I tried to repeat above; and

·         putting Christ in a bad light (as the focus was on Eskom’s problems, with Zuma and Gupta taking no responsibility).

I respect the fact that Macguire finds the cartoon offensive. That, in itself though, is not enough to convince me that the newspaper’s right to freedom of expression should be restricted.

Finding

The complaint is dismissed.

Appeal

The Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven working days of receipt of this decision, either party may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Appeals Panel, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombud