Clearer Perceptions and Livelier Impressions: Reflections on the publication of Al Nisbet’s Cartoons.


Screen Shot 2013-06-01 at 8.36.41 AMTHERE ARE MANY MORE PEOPLE involved in publishing a controversial cartoon than the cartoonist. In any commercial media operation there are many decision-makers and many stakeholders whose opinions and interests must be considered long before the printing presses are switched on. Ultimately, however, the print/don’t print decision belongs to the editor. He or she, alone, must decide whether to censor or publish the controversial material – and that’s not always as straightforward as it sounds.

Let’s start with the commercial considerations. The daily press relies heavily on the willingness of businesses operating in its circulation area to purchase advertising space. Material which might offend the business community should, therefore, be treated with considerable circumspection by editorial staff. An advertisers’ boycott of the newspaper, or even the threat of one, is not something that editors – let alone their publishers! – can afford to treat lightly.

And, an advertisers’ boycott is not the only sort of boycott editors needs to be wary of provoking. Controversial material also runs the risk of arousing so much public opposition that the newspaper’s advertisers are asked to withdraw their support. The customers and clients of local enterprises may threaten to take their business elsewhere if those same enterprises’ commercial relationship with the offending publication is not suspended.

The other potential threat to a newspaper’s commercial health comes from the law. The laws of defamation are particularly harsh in New Zealand, and can be very expensive. There are also a number of legislative hurdles, most of them to do with human rights, which controversial material must clear before it can be published.

But these commercial considerations are only the first line of obstacles with which a conscientious editor must contend. The second line includes the newspaper’s stakeholders. Foremost among these is the publication’s readership.

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Without readers advertising becomes pointless and the newspaper’s business model collapses. In considering whether or not to publish controversial material, an editor will, therefore, ask him or herself: “How will the readers react if we publish this?” Followed by: “How will they react if we censor it?” In weighing up the answers to these questions an editor must be careful to keep his or her own opinions and/or morals out of the scales. No matter how distasteful he or she may find the material, it is the readers’ response that counts.

In the case of Al Nisbet’s cartoons in the Marlborough Express and The Press, the editors would have made their decisions to publish on the basis of many years spent working for newspapers in the conservative heartland of New Zealand. Clearly, they came to the view that a decision to censor Mr Nisbet would not have been well-received by their readers – a majority of whom quite likely share and endorse the sentiments depicted in his cartoons. Their reaction to the suppression of those sentiments would almost certainly have been as strong as the reaction of liberal Aucklanders to the sacking of the NZ Herald’s controversial cartoonist, Malcolm Evans.

It is hardly wise, in either Christchurch or Blenheim to tell your newspaper’s readers that your opinion, as editor, carries more moral weight than theirs. That, when it comes to deciding what is, and what is not, acceptable in an Al Nisbet cartoon – it is your judgement, and only your judgement, that counts.

Publishing Mr Nisbet’s cartoon would not have been made any easier by the response of that other group of important stakeholders in the Marlborough Express and The Press – their staff.

Most New Zealand journalists lean, to a greater or lesser extent, to the Left. This is especially so of those who graduate from the journalism schools in New Zealand’s big cities. Many of these graduates cut their teeth as journalists on the provincial dailies. The culture shock experienced in relocating to Blenheim (and even Christchurch) from Auckland can only be huge. When viewed from the conservative communities of the South Island, the People’s Republic of Grey Lynn must seem very far away.

No editor enjoys over-ruling the objections of his or her staff – especially when many of them are young, idealistic and expressing views with which, at a personal level, he or she may identify strongly. I well recall the occasion when, as editor of the Otago University student newspaper, Critic, the staff were so outraged by the contents of Michael Laws’ (yes, that Michael Laws) “Dragonfly” column that they point-blank refused to lay it out.

Then – as now – Michael had a large following, and I was reluctant to acquiesce in the censorship of his column (no matter how much I personally disputed its contents). Critic did not belong to me, nor the staff, and I firmly believed that the conservative students on campus, whose fees helped to pay for the newspaper, had as much right to read material supportive of their world view as their liberal and radical confreres (who got plenty!)

Eventually, we reached a compromise. Slap-dab in the middle of Michael’s column, the staff inserted the words “Fuck this is sexist!” in large and bold type. This judgement of Solomon was not, I suspect, available to the editors of the Marlborough Express or The Press.

The English philosopher, John Stuart Mill, wrote persuasively on the subject of freedom and the right of individuals to express their opinions. In his celebrated essay, On Liberty, he observes that: “The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

Mr Nisbet has not emerged unscathed from his collision with the truth. His contemptible (thank you Toby Manhire for choosing exactly the right word) cartoons have sparked a nationwide debate about race and class and children and poverty from which we, as a diverse people, can only emerge wiser and stronger.

Suppressing Mr Nisbet’s cartoons would not have magically eliminated the racist sentiments which they so powerfully and disconcertingly express. On the contrary, it would merely have hardened the hearts of his supporters against those who speak so eloquently of freedom and equality – but who then censor any person who dares dispute their definition of what is free and who is equal.

The editors of the Marlborough Express and The Press were right to publish Mr Nisbet’s cartoons. Yes, they were highly offensive to many New Zealanders – but that is the point. We forebear to censor error today, so that tomorrow, with the same disdain for the consequences, we can publish the truth.


  1. And like many of the loudest public debates the emphasis shifts from the heart to the periphery. Are there families spending some of their few dollars on distractors rather than on feeding their children? Why? Can we do something about it so that when those children are grown their children will be in a different world?

  2. “Clearly, they came to the view that a decision to censor Mr Nisbet would not have been well-received by their readers”

    If they just quietly handed the cartoon back to Nisbet, said “Not your best work, Al,” and published a back-up cartoon instead (surely they are not forced to accept whatever they are given on any particular day), how would their readers have even known?

    And of course the usual blather about how “not giving someone a platform” is the same thing as “censorship”. Let me tell you about how censored I am, not getting anything published in the Marlborough Express EVER. It’s a true crime against freedom of speech.

  3. Aww, c’mon editors can always run for cover with their universal excuse “It was in the public interest”. SSTFU!

    Editors can put out what they like, it is in the public interest.


  4. And yet an editor “censors” every day by not publishing everything that lands on his/her desk. I’ve had every letter to the ed the unpublished for the past few months (obviously I’ve said something inconvenient to her). Is that censorship? Or lack of space?

    An editor determines what is published every day. Otherwise each edition would be a few thousand pages long. (Pity the poor paper boys and girls…)

    So if the eds of both papers rejected nisbet’s cartoon, how different would it be to anything else rejected?

    And if a cartoonist offered material that was consistently racist, would an editor’s hands still be tied by the possible label of “censorship”?

    And is there a difference between a cartoonist challenging a prejudice rather than reinforcing it?

    I guess the publication of nisbet’s cartoons prove that we live in a society where free speech still exists.

    I just can’t seem to escape the suspicion that it was was the poor and the powerless who paid the price, this time, for that little bit of free speech…

  5. I’m amazed the National Front hasn’t slapped a lawsuit on Nisbet for plagiarising their work. Anyone parroting their pretty basic mantra doesn’t deserve to make it into print. I find it hard to believe the editors actually saw the cartoons and approved them for publication. I wouldn’t be surprised if it comes out that they didn’t and the job was left to a spotty, inexperienced underling on work experience. Unclever, unfunny, racist tripe devoid of any merit. If I can get hold of a copy of that particular newspaper I shall take delight in wiping my backside on it.

  6. A lot of people have fought, burned and died for Mr Nisbet’s right to express his contemptible viewpoint (I would choose a more colourful adjective).

    We owe them much that we enjoy the right of reply.

    • Richard,

      Are people condemning Nisbet’s RIGHT to express himself?

      Or are they condeming the THING he has expressed.

      And the same right Nibet evidently has to express himself is the same right I have to condemn his nasty racism and the bad judgement of two editors to publish that crap.

      If the validity of an odious opinion is boiled down to merely the right to express it – it’s not much of a justification of that viewpoint. All that’s agreed is that he has a right to express vile racism.

      • Frank, I’ve read viewpoints on this blog condemning the newspaper for publishing. Have you not ?

        • Yes I have, Richard. And at the risk of making a Gosman-style pedantic note – how else does one condemn a racist cartoon?

          If you can’t condemn the cartoons without condemning the decision (without the latter, the former never sees the light of day), then it seems to me that we are restraining criticism of things that must be criticised, because of some ‘niceties’ we must observe.

          It’s almost as if the liberal/progressive condemnation of racism (and any other form of discrimination) has to be muted, or restrained, for fear of crossing some “invisible line”.

          It almost becomes a dinner-table polite discussion, and nothing more.

          It would be interesting to ask a South African Black how s/he might feel about this.

        • “Expressing a viewpoint” is not the same as “having that viewpoint published in a newspaper”.

  7. Well written Chris Trotter – a valuable commentary on how freedom of the press does not always equate with truth. The ability to engage in dialogue to expose the error and inherent racism of this cartoon is an opportunity to put a case for a better Aotearoa-New Zealand.

    • You know, I’ve seen that argument a few times and it still baffles me.

      “Racism is good because it gives us the opportunity to talk about how racism is bad.”

      We wouldn’t need to to talk about racism being bad if people stopped being racist to start with. It’s like saying crime is good because it opens up an opportunity to talk about how to reduce crime.

  8. The very idea of free speech is concerned with the right to speak against government, against tyranny, and against entrenched power structures. Nisbet’s vile scribblings are the opposite of this.

    It would have been much better, if their readers had indeed got up in arms about any non-publication of this rubbish, for that to have been publicly discussed. A debate about why rich and comfortable white bigots are so racist and hate the people who work in their vineyards would have been worthwhile. Giving the knuckledraggers among us the opportunity to make a free speech argument about a piece of rubbish that could have been drawn by an intellectually challenged love child of Kyle Chapman and Cactus Kate was not.

    • yes, it’s funny how these arguments around free speech & isn’t-it-great-we’re-having-this-debate always come from people who don’t have to suffer the consequences, who aren’t the target of the particular bit of vileness they’re defending. it’s not their livelihoods or well-being that is threatened, not them who are being vilified or being stereotyped in ways that reinforce cultural oppression. for them it’s all a theoretical argument, that’s all it ever will be.

      all these cartoons have done is give more power to racists, given them more strength in promoting the damaging stereotypes that then allow a right-wing government to legislate for even tougher reforms on the powerless. when you don’t have to face the consequences of that, it’s easy to sit and write a piece about how the editors had no choice (when clearly they did) & how we’re all so much better off for having had this debate.

  9. there’s an interesting back story here. You’ll have to take my word for it that it’s true. the chch press editor in the 90’s tried to sack Nisbet on the entirely reasonable basis that he was neither funny nor insightful. There was a huge debate inside the paper about the importance of The Press having its own cartoonist rather taking from other titles. Tragically, this saved him. Now he will get a few more years on the basis of some misguided defence of freedom of expression, incompetence be damned.

  10. As an interesting ‘aside’; some have suggested a boycott of the MARLBOROUGH EXPRESS and THE PRESS, or to bring pressure to bear on advertisers.

    So would those methods also be an “attack” on the free speech of Nisbet and the newspapers?

    In which case, the question in my mind is; how does one fight racism without being accused of attempting to curtail “free speech”?

    It almost seems like it’s a one-way fight; the racist has full rights to air his/her nasty views – but opposing such views is… anti-free speech.


    I guess one could write a letter to the ed along these lines,

    “Dear Sir/madam,

    I didn’t like Nisbet’s cartoons.

    But carry on.

    Yours sincerely,
    – Frank Macskasy”

    Strangely though, the anti-apartheid movement certainly didn’t take into account the right of some New Zealanders to watch a game of footy with the Springboks here in NZ in 1981.

    It was a racist tour. It had to stop. So stop it we did.

    I wonder what might have happened had HART been bogged down in a philosophical discussion about racism vs the right to watch a sports game?

    It seemed straight forward in 1981.

    • It was a racist tour. It had to stop. So stop it we did.

      Was that in some alternate universe? In this one we failed in our attempts to stop it, quite a few people took some savage beatings in the process and the dishing out of those beatings was so popular with rednecks that Muldoon got another term in office.

    • Actually the protestors didn’t stop it. The tour went ahead. There was one provincial game that was stopped but really that played ibid to the glands of Muldoon who was able to paint the situation as a simple case of maintaining law and order.

      I haven’t sen anyone suggest you shouldn’t have the right to boycott the Press or the Marlborough times. They might disagree with the reasoning behind you choosing to do so but if you want to exercise your freedom in such a way go ahead.

      As for a racist having the full right to exercise their views, that is as it should be. Free speech means giving EVERYONE the right to express their views NOT just those you agree with.

        • Which was what exactly? Was it that because you believe in the moral superiority of your argument this justifies denying other people’s rights?

            • The question in that post states the following question:

              ‘How does one fight racism without being accused of attempting to curtail “free speech”?’

              The answer us simple. You raise your disgust at behaviour you deem racist. You also exercise your free choice to shun people or organisations you perceive to have uttered or stated a racist view. You don’t demand their views should be stopped from being stated.

              • Ok, now that’s a fair question. I’ve pondered it (which is why I’ve taken most of the day to come back to you with an answer) and it deserves a fair response.

                When you suggest, Gosman;

                “You raise your disgust at behaviour you deem racist. You also exercise your free choice to shun people or organisations you perceive to have uttered or stated a racist view.”

                – what would be the end point of that “shunning”?

                Because really, what you are suggesting (and I’m not saying it’s wrong), is that “shunning” be used to gain an objective.

                What is that objective to be?

                It can’t be merely to voice our disapproval.

                Shunning involves more that that. It involves withdrawing support for a particular thing.

                In this case, shunning would involve withdrawing support for two newspapers. Let’s assume, for a moment, that that is possible as a mass action.

                Let’s say that 50% of readers and advertisers shun THE PRESS and MARLBOROUGH EXPRESS by withdrawing their support for those papers. Withdrawing support means,

                (a) not buying it

                (b) not buying advertising space

                The result would be to cripple both publications.

                A crippled paper would end up in liquidation, unable to pay it’s creditors.

                Question: What difference is there between your method of shunning – and people objecting to publication of racist cartoons? Especially when the latter object to publication, but don’t necessarily demand any course of action?

                Your shunning may be “purist” in that no specific “demands” are vocalised publicly.

                But it could, theoretically, end in the collapse of two newspaper of the loss of hundreds of jobs.

                Condemning two cartoons seems less drastic, and send a clear message to editors, without affecting peoples’ jobs and lives.

                That’s assuming “shunning” even works. There is no evidence it would serve any useful purpose.

                And really, when you think about it, free speech cuts both ways, doesn’t it?

                • Well put Frank.

                  If people like Nisbet publish racist tripe, they should expect criticism and condemnation without hiding behind the shield of “free speech”.

                  Why does free speech always have to serve racists but not those that condemn it!!

  11. Which side are you on…which side are you on? A free platform for racists? No.

  12. Which side are you on…? (as the song goes. )
    A free platform for racists? No.

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