AFR can apologise for racial offence

The Australian Financial Review rightly apologises for cartoon amidst claims of anti-Semitism… don’t hold your breath for admission of ever offending Chinese-Australians

15 June 2020 | Marcus Reubenstein (Image: David Rowe/AFR)

The Australian Financial Review has issued a lengthy apology for an illustration by cartoonist David Rowe which depicts Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg in a way that many people found to be anti-Semitic.

Frydenberg was depicted with a ‘hook nose’ – such exaggerated features were popularised in Europe by anti-Semitic publications during the early part of the 1900s, into the Second World War and the Holocaust.

He is holding a large rod in the shape of golden dollar sign, in addition, he is wearing a yarmulke, a traditional head covering worn by Jewish males. Mr. Frydenberg, who is Jewish, does not wear a yarmulke in public.

The cartoon, which was posted on David Rowe’s Twitter account drew numerous criticisms and the ire of Jewish community leaders. The cartoon was removed from social media and the newspaper, owned by Nine Entertainment which also publishes the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, issued a lengthy apology.

Rowe is reported to have personally apologised to the treasurer.

An apology… or at least half of one

In a typical mainstream media way, it was an apology founded on a weak defence and an equally limp retraction.

The newspaper wrote, “Both Rowe and the Financial Review apologise for unintended hurt and offence caused by the cartoon published in last weekend’s AFR Weekend. At the same time, the Financial Review and Rowe maintain that the cartoon contained no Jewish references.”

Their defence was that Frydenberg’s hook nose is a style commonly employed by Rowe; the yarmulke was in fact a sailor’s cap; and the dollar sign rod was a reference to his position as Treasurer – not, as some concluded, a negative stereotype suggesting Jewish greed. 

Australian Jewish News reported, “Social media users were also unimpressed, describing the apology as “even more offensive”, “condescending”, and “an attempted justification at … an intended slur”.”

Re-drawing history

The offensive cartoon was based on a painting by E Phillips Fox depicting the arrival of Captain James Cook at Botany Bay in 1770. It was intended, says the AFR, as an anti-racist commentary amidst indigenous Australian concerns in the light of the Black Lives Matter protests.

As part of its defence of the elaborate cartoon, the newspaper says elements of it perceived to be negative Jewish imagery were just “a quick sketch.”

In the end the cartoonist re-drew the image – removing some of the offensive elements – and the AFR republished it online two days later. While its apology came with a great number of qualifications, the AFR did act in the face of public condemnation and strong indignation on the part of Jewish community leaders.

A lesson for Chinese-Australians

While freedom of speech and expression are highly valued notions in a society such as Australia, those freedoms do not automatically extend the right to offend, vilify or racially abuse any members or groups within our society.

We are now in the midst of, COVID-19 fuelled, anti-Chinese racism peddled by the mainstream media; and there have been many unbalanced and factually incorrect reports by Nine Entertainment’s major mastheads.

The question arises: what would happen if the AFR published a cartoon which caused the Chinese community similar offence?

The answer is probably nothing. Certainly, it’s doubtful that any Chinese groups at all would even bother to register their objections.

It is a long-held media practise that the judgement to publish offensive material is rarely based on whether it would cause offence. The question asked is will those we are offending react?

AFR Editor, Michael Stutchbury, who apologised for the Frydenberg cartoon, should no doubt exercise far greater caution when broaching issues sensitive to Australia’s Jewish community. Whether the potential of causing offence to Chinese-Australians will lead him to pause for thought is another question.  

There is a lesson for the Chinese-Australian community – that standing up to media racism is a vital first step in protecting the community’s interests.