Measles cartoon complaints upheld

On December 3, 2019, the Otago Daily Times published a Garrick Tremain cartoon depicting two women leaving a travel agency. One woman was saying to the other "I asked What are the least popular spots at the moment? She said The ones people are picking up in Samoa".

The cartoon was published in the context of a measles epidemic sweeping Samoa which had resulted in 62 deaths (52 of them babies and children) at the time the cartoon was published.

Over the next few days the Media Council received over 130 complaints, most expressing their concern that such tragedy could be used for comic effect in a cartoon.

The complainants said the cartoon was heartless and racist and the initial apology by the Otago Daily Times was inadequate and added to the trauma.

Five representative complaints were considered by the Media Council under the fast-track procedure.

This is a brief outline of the decision. The full decision can be found at

Cartoonists employ wit, satire, exaggeration, caricature and humour to make a point. Cartoons often deal with grave situations and can make fun of unfunny events; by their nature they will often cause offence. That is a freedom to be defended. However, even with cartoons there is a line of gratuitous offence and hurt which when crossed can constitute a breach of the professional standards by the media.

This is such a cartoon. It has no redeeming qualities. It was a play on use of the word "spots". It was a weak attempt at humour. It was dependent for the joke on a measles epidemic that had cost the lives of 52 babies and children and 10 adults. It showed no human understanding of the dire situation Samoa was facing.

We note that other cartoonists have commented on the unspoken rule of cartooning — "punch up, not down". This cartoon broke that rule.

There was a "them and us" quality about the cartoon. We have no doubt that this cartoon would not have been published if the 52 babies and children and the 10 adults had died in Oamaru, for instance. It has a racist quality, being that other lives do not matter as "ours" do. It invites us to laugh about 62 deaths, the implication being that this is acceptable because they are "not us". We consider it highly discriminatory.

Freedom of expression plainly has bounds. With any right comes responsibility for how it is exercised. The editor has now acknowledged that this cartoon went far beyond what can ever be acceptable. The Media Council agrees. To publish this cartoon was a breach of professional standards so serious that it cannot be remedied by reference to freedom of expression.

We find that the cartoon was gratuitously hurtful and discriminatory. Despite the very high bar that must be crossed before a complaint about an offensive cartoon will be upheld, that bar was crossed with this cartoon, and by a significant margin.


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