Before it gets too hot: censoring cartoons at the Irish Times

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Above is the Martyn Turner cartoon that got pulled by the Irish Times. Why was it withdrawn? Others have pointed out that the Irish Times’s stated rationale for its withdrawal is inconsistent with its approach to other cartoons by the same artist. The Irish Times said that Turner had ‘taken a sideswipe at all priests‘, ‘suggesting that none of them can be trusted with children’. That, however, is merely the Irish Times’s interpretation of the cartoon. It is also, no doubt, an interpretation shared by whatever constituency of Catholics objected to the cartoon.

A different reading of the cartoon might conclude that Turner -since he is the regular cartoonist in the Irish Times and knows the readership is sentient beings, more or less, with a knowledge of Irish society- has already credited the readership with the awareness that not all priests are the same. That would be a normal enough assumption. There is no need, for example, for a cartoonist who draws a caricature of Enda Kenny or Gerry Adams to include a caption identifying them. What Turner is concerned with here is the way the Catholic Church as an institution -the priests are wearing vestments- has its clerics all ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’, a figure of speech Turner presents in his image.

The allusion to Meat Loaf’s “I would do anything for love (but I won’t do that)”, for me, is a suggestion that the Church’s position on mandatory reporting and the seal of confession is shrouded in histrionics. There is a neat contrast suggested by Meat Loaf’s thunderous pomp and the unctuous twee of official Church rhetoric with regard to children.

One might also interpret the under-the-breath afterthought, about staying away from children, not as a suggestion that all priests are paedophiles, but that the Church has a harmful effect on children’s development more broadly, in light of the control it still exercises over the education system, for example.

It might also be a suggestion that one of the reasons certain paedophiles were able to operate in the way they did within the Catholic Church was the degree of closeness, often unmediated closeness, between priests and children. It is hard to see how this could be interpreted as ‘a sideswipe at all priests’ unless you considered all priests collectively responsible. It is far from clear that Turner’s cartoon is saying such a thing.

That is only one reading, mind you. The point is, this is a reasonable alternative interpretation to the one put forward by Turner’s employers. But the Irish Times interpreted the cartoon in a particular way. Instead of saying, we will leave the interpretation of an ambiguous image -a great many cartoons are ambiguous- to our readers, they validated the interpretation of those who complained, and then they allowed the irrepressible Breda O’Brien of the equally irrepressible Iona Institute to slobber forth on the subject in her weekly column.

What this shows, I think, is the extent of the influence of a certain constituency over the Irish Times, or, at the very least, an obligation felt by the Irish Times to treat that constituency with respect, and even deference.

If this is true, why should it be so? What does the bastion of liberal opinion have to fear from publishing an ambiguous cartoon? Some people with whom I was in contact last week were not that impressed with the cartoon. They thought it was singling out Catholic priests as a facile target. One person said to me: if it was an image depicting all imams as bombers, there would be an outcry. I don’t think, however, that such a thought experiment works that well here.

There is a particular context for Turner’s cartoon: its publication in a society where many people are well aware of how the Church works and of the fact that only a small minority of priests are paedophiles. Crucially, in judging whether the publication of the cartoon is justified, we are also dealing with a society with a Catholic majority in which the Church exercised, and continues to exercise, a great deal of influence, over the education system, over the health system, and over questions of public morality and social teaching that extend well beyond the bedroom. The Iona Institute, but also the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (see David Begg lauding Catholic social teaching as the Church’s best kept secret). There are grounds for subjecting the Catholic Church to robust social critique, lampooning and ridicule. The absence of such things in Ireland would mean an absence of democracy. By contrast, the religion of Islam and its clerics have had very little role in Ireland, and Muslims have been a demonised minority in Western societies for a long time.

Or to put it another way: you will get articles demonising Muslims in the Irish Independent, but you won’t get articles demonising Catholics. And whilst many of the excesses of the Catholic Church have been well documented -the child abuse, the child abuse cover-ups, industrial schools, slave labour laundries, censorious teachings on sexual morality- it has only ever been the excesses that have been subject to public scrutiny. The role of the Catholic Church in sabotaging the prospect of universal health care because of its fanatical anti-communism, for instance, is treated with indifference by Ireland’s media establishment. Certainly, there is no reason why Denis O’Brien, now the proud owner of a private hospital, should commission his minions to examine the influence of the Catholic Church in this regard.

There are parallels here with the treatment of Ireland’s banks. Just as conventional wisdom in Ireland would have it that there is a fundamentally good banking sector that has been perverted by the greedy machinations of a few, so there is also a fundamentally good Catholic Church that has been tarnished by hierarchical arrogance and individuals unable to keep their urges under control. This fundamentally good organisation is personified by the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, among others, and finds expression in organisations such as Trocaire and Social Justice Ireland, and, indirectly, in the particularly high esteem accorded to charitable organisations and voluntary groups, and, occasionally, in lay Catholics such as former President Mary McAleese (whose unqualified husband was handpicked by the government to investigate the Magdalene Laundries, an appointment that drew little scrutiny in the press).

And the thing is, there is very little critical treatment of this ‘good’ Church, whether with regard, for example, to the conformity imposed by its schools, or the preference it gives to private property and charity over social rights (its support for private schools and hospitals, for instance) and how this perpetuates consensus and social quiet. Of course, we shouldn’t expect much critical treatment of these things, since they are of service to Ireland’s ruling class. It isn’t hard to understand, in this scenario, how there is already a reservoir of sympathy for the average priest -who is not a paedophile but a member of the ‘good’ Church- in Ireland’s political and media establishment, even before the phone calls start coming in from Catholic lobby groups. From the perspective of ruling elites, this good Church is still a vital pillar of Irish society, pulling together the people needed to hose down the rabble with holy water if it gets too hot.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Before it gets too hot: censoring cartoons at the Irish Times

  1. Pingback: The Round-up | Procartoonists.org

  2. If they object to suggesting that all priests are the same then they could always try another Meatloaf song, “Two out of three ain’t bad”

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