Edited ‘with extreme prejudice’
CARTOONIST Steve Bell was the star turn at the December London Freelance Branch meeting, and some of the cartoons he presented were exclusives because they'd been edited "with extreme prejudice" - to borrow from the alleged spies' euphemism for "termination" of a thorn in their masters' side.
In normal times, our December meeting would have been a networking party for members, with a spread of free food and drink for freelances who are usually ignored when it's time to send out the invites for the office Christmas party. And the Freelance is aware of several couples who got together as a result of an LFB seasonal party.
However, this year it was not to be, alas. The December 2020 covid-era meeting was another Zoomer, albeit with a very stripped-down agenda, minimal Branch business and a speaker to entertain and amuse members at the end of a hard year in the absence of a physical get-together in the same room. Guardian cartoonist and NUJ activist Steve Bell was chosen for this task, with the wonders of Zoom's "Share Content" function allowing him to project good quality images of his cartoons and talk us through them. (He was kind enough to give permission for our social media officer Nicci Talbot to tweet out some of his slides.)
Steve started out as a cartoonist on Time Out. Its then crime correspondent Duncan Campbell, also present in December's meeting, got him the gig doing the Maggie's Farm strip. The first Maggie's Farm collection from the 1980s is still the book that Steve's made the most money from.
Duncan recalled how at a 1980s Tory Party conference there weren't any spaces left in the press gallery, so he and Steve were told to sit among the delegates. When a motion on defence came up and delegates were asked "Anyone against?", Steve and Duncan looked at each other, then put their hands up, voting against it. Then Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine commented that the motion was passed "almost unanimously."
Then "On a lighter note, this is about condoms", explained Steve, moving swiftly on to former Prime Minister David Cameron, who Steve noticed was "unusually smooth-skinned" and transparent, which led Steve to portray him thus: "I unrolled a giant condom over his head".
Steve got even more keen on portraying Cameron with a condom over his head, complete with a little reservoir at the tip, when he heard Cameron didn't like it. There followed a Guardian editorial "condom ban" on such depictions of Cameron by Steve, until the editor came out of a meeting with advertisers who told him such a ban was "ridiculous", so it was lifted. (See here for more on Steve and David Cameron from his previous appearance before LFB in 2016.)
Censorship was a recurring theme in Steve's presentation - he's had 22 cartoons spiked or "edited with extreme prejudice" since he began at the Guardian 39 years ago during the strike at his then "major earner", Time Out. To be fair, that's "less than one a year" that gets spiked. Worryingly, though, the censored cartoons "seem to have stacked up more recently": most of these censored cartoons have been in the last five years.
He thinks his Falklands War-era strip that was just a series of explosions and noises, one of which - "Pym!" - was also the name of the then Foreign Secretary, was dropped from he Guardian because it coincided with photos of HMS Antelope burning after an Argentinian missile strike - so it was considered in bad taste, "which is I suppose fair enough." He never got an explanation, though. It was his first strip to be pulled.
Any portrayal of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, if it doesn't get spiked, is guaranteed to promote an immediate "shitstorm" on publication, especially if it features stockpiles of missiles with Israeli flags on them. Steve went to Israel and Palestine on a British Council tour. (Cartoonist Blue Lou joined Steve on another British Council tour, of South Africa: see here).
Anything that Steve's editors feel might possibly be construed as a Holocaust reference gets spiked, as did the cartoon of Netanyahu's visit to Downing Street with a vision of Rouzan al-Najjar - a civilian medic shot dead by an Israeli solider - appearing in the Downing Street fireplace, a location which his editor felt had echoes of a holocaust trope.
A cartoon from the era of the First Intifada - a wave of largely nonviolent resistance by Palestinians - used cod Old Testament language in a scene showing overweight Israeli security men bringing Biblical "fire and vengeance" to the youth of Palestine. Steve's editor rang him up to say he's "not running it". Why not? He told Steve he "cannot face the negative shower of letters that it will inevitably induce."
A cartoon of Jeremy Corbyn being tortured by Labour Chief Whip Nick Brown was rejected because of dialogue referring to one of the characters "not being a right-wing Zionist", which made Steve's editor feel "uncomfortable". As Steve suggests, if you don't want to feel uncomfortable, don't hire a cartoonist. It's their job to make you feel uncomfortable.
Steve submitted a three-strip series featuring Australian Late Show presenter Clive James with Pope John Paul II, the Ayatollah Khomeni and evangelist preacher Jimmy Swaggart, during the Satanic Verses affair in which some religious figures called for the assassination of the book's author, Salman Rushdie. The cartoon featured Clive asking the Pope "Sheilas" and "bonk bans". It was axed because his editor "didn't want to offend the Catholics.". His cartoon attacking "all religions I could think off" is "one I probably wouldn't get away with now.".
Two more of Steve's cartoons showed Holocaust denier David Irving and his rôle in promoting the fake Hitler Diaries in Murdoch's Sunday Times were spiked. This was because they showed "faked-up Nazi documents", another source of editorial unease.
How, as a cartoonist do you react to 9/11, or to the "miserable" massacre of some of France's greatest cartoonists at the offices of Parisian satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, or to the "ridiculous war" in the Falklands? Steve showed us some of his works in response to these atrocities.
Back in the day, Steve would drew a week's worth of strips for the Guardian at his studio on Brighton and "put them on the train on a Thursday" on each afternoon (using British Rail's Red Star Parcels station-to-station service to London, which the Freelance editors are old enough to have used for page layouts and as a bicycle courier). He once put on a train on a Thursday a strip meant to appear in print to following Saturday. It showed Tory Party grandees, during a break from the 1984 Conservative Party conference, cavorting in the sea off Brighton with some exploding pieces of heavy strategic nuclear ordnance coming out of their heads. The cartoon included (then Trade and Industry Secretary Norman) "Tebbit with his head blowing off."
Very early the next morning, a Provisional IRA bomb blew off a big chunk of the Grand Hotel, venue for the Conservative Party conference, killing five including an MP and permanently disabling others. Norman Tebbit was critically injured and his wife was among those disabled. "Oh fuck!" said Steve. "I rang them up… Can you not run it?... A blatant case of self-censorship... censorship works both ways," he noted.
Many Bell cartoons, though, were sent back because of the Guardian's strict policy on reporting and depicting violent deaths, especially suicides. (See the NUJ's guidelines on responsible reporting of deaths by suicide here.) Deaths by hanging and hangings in general are particularly frowned upon. This has apparently got more stringent lately.
A classic 1980s Steve Bell cartoon showed Tory Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine as Tarzan, swinging from a vine. But instead of actually hanging from a vine he was pulling on the tail of his Cabinet colleague Geoffrey Howe (depicted as a sheep), while Howe was clinging to a choking Margaret Thatcher who had the vine wrapped around her neck. It probably wouldn't be acceptable today, he reckons.
Brexit has given Steve many opportunities to depict the Brexiteers lined up on the edge of a series of cliffs, usually the White Cliffs of Dover, although he says he has to be careful not to depict any of them encouraging each other to jump or dragging each other to the cliff edge.
A compromise was reached with an editor who considered that Steve's Gulf War Two scene of George W Bush defecating on the floor of a toilet and using a loo roll made of UN flags was all "too much". Steve agreed to take out "three turds".
Lord Archer of Weston-Super-Mare, former deputy Conservative Party chairman and convicted perjurer, was fair game, but when one cartoon showed Archer with his wife Mary - "I forget what it was about" - for some reason Mary Archer was edited out. His "Honk if you miss her" sign on the vehicle carrying Diana Princess of Wales's coffin for burial was also toned down at the request of the editor during a national "frenzy of grief".
As is customary for a Steve Bell appearances at LFB, we were treated to his talent for creative swearing. The Freelance counted 18 Steve Bell expletives including 11 occasions on which Steve said "fuck". These included examples of him reading out swearwords from the dialogue of his own cartoons, often in dialects or accents. Among these was the semi-autobiographical, heavily French-accented character Monsieur L'artiste admitting he was "peesed" and describing another character as a "ouanquair."
Steve's cheering talk was preceded by a quiz devised and delivered by Hilary Macaskill and her glamorous assistant Michael Shipman. A few examples of outrageous festive headgear were in evidence among participants dialling in, and there was an informal virtual "pub afterwards" experience still on Zoom as punters drifted away.