In defence of outrage at Martin Rowson

Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator, makes a reasonable, though unconvincing, argument in his piece (“In defence of Martin Rowson”, May 2): that the Rowson cartoon depicting outgoing BBC chairman Richard Sharp published and then removed by Guardian editors wasn’t motivated by antisemitism.

We say that his defence of Rowson against charges of antisemitism are unconvincing in light of our monitoring of his output for the past 13 years.  And, while we can’t see into the man’s heart, there is enough evidence of the cartoonist evoking antisemitic tropes to at least be skeptical of Nelson’s categorical defence of him.

But, Nelson also makes an implicit argument that is completely indefensible: that Jews and others who complained dishonestly manufactured outrage about the cartoon.

We said “implicit”, because he never mentioned Jews.  But, how else to interpret these arguments?

As an editor of a magazine that runs humour and satire, I’ve been through similar storms over the years. Cartoons can now cause more controversy than any story. Post-Charlie Hebdo the police even came to visit me to explain that I am now deemed a terrorist target due to the fact that we publish satire. But cartoonists lampoon everyone and everything and have done for centuries: if you self-censor through fear of a mob, then satire bows to the mob. To run satire means you are likely to be the target of outrage squads who deploy various misrepresentation techniques. A zoomed-in clip of Sharp was passed around Twitter, for example, out of context from the overall image. A Twitter storm then started, as they often do in holiday weekends.

Twitter storms tend to have five stages. 1) General, often confected outrage 2) Someone in public office joins in, making it a reportable news story 3) The target can make the mistake of responding, either with a statement or by removing the offending joke/cartoon, thinking it will relieve rather than add pressure 4) A resignation hunt then starts – especially if a publication’s staff join in the attack until 5) Someone is fired, to assuage the mob, usually because the commercial people (who have less stomach for fights) say it’s damaging business.

The biggest, greatest publications in the world have ended up yielding to the trolls. Twitter storms led to Kevin Myers being fired as a Sunday Times columnist, Ian Buruma as editor of the New York Review of Books, Kelvin MacKenzie from the Sun, Iain Macwhirter from the Herald and many more. Even David Remnick, one of the most successful magazine editors ever, had to cancel his interview with Steve Bannon after a Cat-4 Twitter storm.

But what’s odd, with the Rowson row, is seeing those who normally abhor cancel culture getting stuck in now that the victim is the Guardian.

First, it needs to be clarified that Rowson wasn’t fired, and we’re not aware of any British Jewish organisation advocating for his termination.  He was not “cancelled” and, as we’ve made clear, CAMERA UK firmly opposes cancel culture. But, anger and criticism by Jews over what they perceive to be antisemitism, particularly when the target is affiliated with a media outlet that’s often hospitable to such bigotry, is not the same thing as the censorious culture Fraser rightly decries.

Instead of empathising with the frustration of Rowson’s Jewish critics, including some who are widely respected experts in understanding antisemitism, and viewing their ‘outrage’ as sincere, he imputes dishonesty, dismissing them as “outrage squads”.

Though the Spectator continues to provide a platform to at least one commentator openly hostile to Jews, they are, as a right-wing publication, certainly the last place that Jeremy Corbyn-supporting anti-Jewish activists would turn to for commentary. Yet, their editor goes down the same low road as the former Labour leader and his fellow-travelers, those who breezily dismissed the concerns of a community disproportionately targeted by racism, gaslighting Jews who expressed fear over the political ascendancy of an activist clique which often traded in toxic anti-Jewish calumnies.

Yes, by all means, let’s have a vigorous debate over what constitutes modern antisemitism.  But, anyone interested in having an honest and intellectually serious conversation about the topic in any given situation would avoid ad hominem attacks and imputations of bad faith to the British Jewish community.

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Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson and antisemitism: a brief history

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  1. says: Daniel

    after reading Fraser Nelson’s piece I cancelled my Spectator subscription and did write that to the fools who employ him.

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