Where to Draw the Line: Censorship and Self-Censorship in Canadian Newspaper Editorial Cartooning

The old rule set by the late Bob Bierman still applies. One must be fearless and have nerves of steel to go after the powerful and the ridiculous.

By Paul Weinberg
Published October 31, 2016

Editorial cartoonists in Canada occasionally experience censorship, and perhaps more often, self-censor to avoid getting into trouble with their bosses. But the seriousness of this issue depends on whom you speak to in the profession.

"I would say that the censorship thing is not a huge problem," says Wes Tyrell, a Toronto-based cartoonist and illustrator and president of the Association of Canadian Cartoonists (ACC) which "promotes the interests of staff and freelance cartoonists in Canada." But he also concedes he may not have a clear picture since his colleagues are loath sometimes to publicly discuss their conflicts with their editors.

One editorial cartoonist who claims to have directly experienced censorship is freelancer and current ACC member Dan Murphy. He also maintains that other members of his profession have faced similar issues with employers. In some newspapers, Murphy says, publishers have decided "to get rid of the loosest of cannons that upset advertisers."

Tyrell says that the full-time editorial cartoonist represents an endangered species. In some mid-sized cities like Ottawa, there are no newspapers featuring a daily editorial cartoonist satirizing local politics. In fact, Tyrell estimates there are roughly 20 or fewer full-time staff editorial cartoonists in Canada today.

Younger people have difficulty breaking into this profession because it is largely staffed by crusty older white guys who have decades of experience under their belts. After media organizations downsize, these same men increasingly find themselves out of a job, reports Tyrell.

There is some legal protection. In 1980, the Court of Appeal for British Columbia ruled on a defamation lawsuit launched by Bill Vander Zalm, the former provincial minister of human resources, against Bob Bierman, the editorial cartoonist of Victoria's Times Colonist, who had depicted Vander Zalm picking wings off flies.

The court upheld the right of cartoonists to ridicule and satirize their subjects.

In more recent years, Dan Murphy faced his own censorship eruption and said he did not see it coming. On staff for 29 years at The Province in Vancouver, he had drawn plenty of mocking editorial cartoons, including several targeting the high-profile oil pipeline company Enbridge, without any interference or reprimand from editors or management.

However, that all changed in June 2012 when The Province suddenly pulled from its website Murphy's animated spoof of an Enbridge advertisement in which he caricatured the company's perennial problems with messy oil spills. "Enbridge was mad and threatening to yank their ad money from Postmedia papers, [including The Province]," he says. (Enbridge denied the claim.)

The Province and its owner, Postmedia Network, received an embarrassing public black eye. So, Murphy says, The Province later featured on its website his second animated cartoon on Enbridge. It showed how another Enbridge ad erased some of the islands in the Douglas Channel along the B.C. coast where ships bearing tar sands oil would have to pass.

"[The cartoon] was even harder than the first one, and I sent it in because it had to be said," says Murphy.

Murphy was not fired, but his job as full-time editorial cartoonist was eliminated in November 2012. Subsequently, he left The Province rather than accept a less-defined editorial position, he says.

Now in his early 60s, the Vancouver-based cartoonist continues to freelance for newspapers across Canada and remains outspoken on behalf of his profession.

The story appears to be quite different for Sue Dewar, a veteran staff cartoonist also employed by Postmedia, which in early 2015 purchased the Sun newspaper chain where she had worked under different owners. One of the very few women in the profession, Dewar reports that every editorial cartoon she has submitted so far has been used.

In fact, once she finishes drawing them, they head straight into the hopper for publication. "There are going to be some areas [which may be touchy], but I haven't tripped yet with this gang," says Dewar.

A different state of affairs existed under the chain's previous owner, Quebecor. Then, editorial cartoons were rejected by former Sun News Network executive Kory Teneycke, Dewar says. "He was quite finicky about cartooning and a lot of stuff got pulled." Teneycke did not reply to a request for comments.

"You had to follow the line of the [Sun] TV and it was quite right wing, which I am really not," continues Dewar.

She suggests that the financial insecurities of media organizations still trying to devise a successful business model in the Internet age are making some editors and managers cautious.

"When the company is financially insecure, then the editor becomes insecure, and then you end up in a situation where they second-guess everything, because they are afraid for their jobs, so they second-guess you and you end up second-guessing yourself, and everybody second-guesses everything."

To avoid outright rejection of an editorial cartoon, a cartoonist has to know ahead of time his or her red lines, advises Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator's full-time editorial cartoonist.

Early on in his career, he encountered editors who were nervous about reader reaction to his drawings. "The biggest fear," he says, is "a cartoon that provokes reader cancellations [of] subscriptions."

MacKay says he gets more reactions from readers for cartoons involving lively local Hamilton concerns than about anything on the foibles of national politicians.

Local sensitivities played a role in April 2005 when Spectator management refused to publish a MacKay cartoon that ridiculed the awarding of an honorary doctorate by McMaster University's president to former prime minister Jean Chrétien, whose reputation had been tarnished by the Quebec sponsorship scandal.

"I think [the cartoon] hit home hard for some of our editors because it ridiculed the university's president, an active member of the community who would have been rather chummy in the various partnerships between McMaster and The Hamilton Spectator," says MacKay.

The situation is much improved under current Spectator editor Paul Berton, MacKay says. "In the last five years, he has not spiked anything of mine, which is pretty good."

MacKay says that editorial cartoonists across North America are far more careful about what they mock than ever before. At the top of his no-go list are caricatures of Muhammad (after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris) and staid ethnic stereotypes.

And he expresses mixed feelings about the readers who appear to connect more emotionally with commemorative, unfunny and ultimately "sentimental" cartoons about fallen soldiers or deceased political leaders.

He cites the 2014 National Newspaper Award given to cartoonist Bruce MacKinnon for his rendition of the mourning after the killing of Corporal Nathan Cirillo at the National War Memorial.

MacKay is not denying the poignancy of MacKinnon's drawing. But he worries about what he describes as an insufficient public appetite in the twenty-first century for the irony expressed in the best of editorial cartooning.

"So what often happens is that I use my quirky sense of humour to appeal to a very small [portion] in the audience. If they get something out of it-good," MacKay says.

Notwithstanding MacKay's remarks, there is little evidence that censorship and self-censorship are any less or more serious today in Canada than in the heyday of print media.

But the broad newspaper audience is no more. People are getting their news from different sources, and younger cartoonists are taking their work online, where the audience can be both segmented and international.

Nevertheless, the old rule set by the late Bob Bierman still applies. One must be fearless and have nerves of steel to go after the powerful and the ridiculous.

This essay was first published in the Book and Periodical Council's Freedom To Read 2016 [PDF].

Paul Weinberg is a Hamilton-based freelance journalist and the editor of an upcoming collection, Reclaiming Hamilton: Essays from the Ambitious City. He is also a member of Environment Hamilton.


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