Gagged cartoonists: is satire still possible?

Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Sunday 29 October, Church House, London


Ever since the days of William Hogarth and Edward Linley Sambourne, cartoonists have gleefully poked a disrespectful finger in the eye of the political establishment, using attention-grabbing drawings and incisive wit to expose pomposity, pretension and hypocrisy.

The power of cartoons to threaten the status quo has prompted repressive regimes to jail cartoonists – such as Atena Farghadani in Iran, Musa Kart in Turkey and Jiang Yefei in China. Yet in the proudly ‘liberal’ West, cartoons are increasingly being subject to censorship. Many creators have lost their livelihoods, or even their lives, for their work or views.

In recent years, Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell’s long-running If… was cancelled, while his colleague Martin Rowson was praised for conceding and apologising for anti-Semitic motifs in one of his recent cartoons. Stella Perrett was fired from the Morning Star after complaints that her cartoon about women’s single-sex spaces was ‘transphobic’. Most tragically, the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were murdered for offending radical Muslims.

Following a series of cartoon-related controversies, the New York Times stopped publishing daily political cartoons altogether, in favour of long-form visual journalism that expresses ‘nuance, complexity and strong voice from a diversity of viewpoints across all of our platforms’. Is publishing political cartoons simply too big a risk to take in the midst of a divisive culture war?

What is the role of political cartoons today? The Spectator’s Fraser Nelson argues that ‘cartoonists lampoon everyone and everything and have done for centuries’. But can a medium that thrives on caricature, exaggeration and righteous anger operate in a ‘be kind’ culture which shrinks from causing offence? Or are we seeing an overdue corrective that will encourage cartoonists to refocus their bile on targets that truly deserve it?

Dr Graham Barnfield
consultant; founder, Emalone Books; former senior lecturer in journalism

Andy Davey
freelance cartoonist

Stella Perrett
cartoonist, Radical Cartoons; author and illustrator, 2020, The Year We Were All Cancelled; women’s rights campaigner

Harley Richardson
chief product officer, OxEd and Assessment; organiser, AoI Education Forum; blogger,; author, The Liberating Power of Education