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Law lets political cartoonists get away with satirical murder

Nov 5th, 2008 | By | Category: Featured Article, Features

New Zealand cartoonists are revelling in the political silly season. How do they get away with what appears to be blatant defamation? REESH LYON spoke to cartoonist Mike Moreu and queried media law experts:

PORTRAYING politicians as loonies or self-deified money-grabbers is all in a day’s work for New Zealand cartoonists – and it appears there’s little in terms of the law to stop them.

“Many cartoons have a defamatory meaning,” says media law expert Steven Price. “That is, they make the readers think less of someone depicted, but that’s not to say they are legally defamatory.”

There are several legal defences available for cartoonists, such as honest opinion based on fact or qualified privilege in the case of depictions of politicians.

“Perhaps a bigger reason is that launching defamation proceedings will only draw more attention to the cartoon, and will make it look as if the plaintiff can’t take a joke.

“Quite apart from that, defamation lawsuits are risky, lengthy and expensive,” he says.

The leading New Zealand defamation case involving a cartoonist was future prime minister William Massey v New Zealand Times in 1911, a year before he was elected.

Massey accused the newspaper of defaming him in a cartoon that suggested his party – the Reform Party – had distributed “scurrilous” pamphlets.

The jury found the cartoon was not defamatory because it was “a political cartoon pure and simple,” and an Appeal Court upheld that decision.

Professional cartoonist Mike Moreu – whose work appears in several New Zealand newspapers including The Dominion Post – says he has never had second thoughts about a cartoon, but his editors have.

He could recall only one of his cartoons being rejected because of its legally touchy subject, and says although he gets little editorial feedback, editors tend to err on side of caution “when money’s at stake.”

“It’s not the cartoonist’s job to worry about that sort of stuff. You’ve got to pitch your cartoons to the audience, but that doesn’t mean pull back on the message.”

Originally from the US, Mr Moreu says it is easy to offend people in New Zealand because it is a small country with few degrees of separation.

“In saying that, New Zealand is extremely liberal. Some of the stuff I can do here I would never get away with in the States. They’re gun-shy about lawsuits.”

Fellow cartoonist Tom Scott could not be contacted for comment, but is well known for his political cartoons and particularly as former prime minister Robert Muldoon’s antagonist.

Mr Scott was banned from Muldoon’s press conferences because Muldoon didn’t regard him as a real reporter, but rather a satirist.

Canterbury University law lecturer Ursula Cheer says political cartoons are seen generally as satire, “and so it would be difficult to show they have a defamatory meaning.

“The Bill of Rights now means that freedom of expression must be weighed in the balance in these cases – political satire is seen as high value speech and worthy of protection.”

PICTURES: Top: Mike Moreu cartoon “Hanging in there” which appeared on September 25. Below: Tom Scott savages US vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s tenuous grasp of reality.

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