View all newsletters
Sign up for our free email newsletters

Fighting for quality news media in the digital age.

  1. Comment
October 25, 2018updated 30 Sep 2022 7:00am

Can a cartoon be defamatory? Under English law there is one simple answer

By Demelza Hassani and Carolyn Pepper

The Australian Herald Sun caused a furore last month by publishing a cartoon by artist Mark Knight which purports to depict tennis-pro Serena Williams’ reaction to losing the US Open.

The cartoon, which has received multiple accusations of racism and sexism, shows Williams jumping over a broken racquet in a temper whilst the umpire asks her opponent Naomi Osaka “can you just let her win?”

The paper has been defiant in the face of complaints, labelling its critics “self-appointed censors”. But what if Williams wanted to take action against the Herald Sun, can a cartoon be actionable in defamation?

Under English law, the simple answer is yes.

There’s no blanket rule that a cartoon or caricature cannot be defamatory purely on the basis that it is (allegedly) satirical or allegorical, or otherwise meant to be funny.

The issue for claimants here would be persuading a court to ascribe their chosen meaning to the cartoon.

The general rule is that a defamatory statement should have a single defamatory meaning, or “sting”, and that this “meaning” needs to be identified in terms of what the “ordinary reasonable reader” would believe it to be.

Content from our partners
Publishing on the open web is broken, how generative AI could help fix it
Impress: Regulation, arbitration and complaints resolution
Papermule: Workflow automation for publishers

In respect of an allegorical cartoon, a court could find that this single meaning is not defamatory.

“Malicious falsehood” claims do not have the “meaning” rule, but do require the claimant to prove falsity of the statement, malice, and financial loss which are high burdens.

A publisher might also be able to rely on various defences to a defamation claim, e.g. that the cartoon was an honest opinion or published in the public interest (depending on the facts).

For the above reasons, defamation cases involving cartoons are rarely seen in court.

One case which arose in 2012 in the Jersey courts was Pitman v Jersey Evening Post. Here, the claim arose in respect of a cartoon of two politicians surrounded by banknotes and accompanied by the words “4x the salary darling!”.

They alleged that its meaning was that they were “money grabbers”. The Court did not accept that the cartoon would be understood to bear the meaning pleaded. The Court also said that, as politicians, the claimants could be expected to be more robust than others.

From a practical perspective then, what can editors do to try and ensure that they stay on the right side of the law?  Here are some pointers:

  1. Consider the subject. As set out above, politicians and public figures are likely expected to be more resilient in the face of satire
  2. Set out to critique, not offend. In most cases, a cartoon does not have to be overtly offensive to get its point across
  3. Try to ensure that the basis and message of the cartoon is materially accurate, in the same way that you would when publishing any other article
  4. Obviously be careful to avoid any arguably racist material. Publication can be a criminal offence.

Demelza Hassani is a media and libel specialist at Reed Smith. Carolyn Pepper is a partner at the firm.

Picture: Danielle Parhizkaran/USA Today Sports/TPX Images of the Day

Topics in this article :

Email pged@pressgazette.co.uk to point out mistakes, provide story tips or send in a letter for publication on our "Letters Page" blog

Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
  • Business owner/co-owner
  • CEO
  • COO
  • CFO
  • CTO
  • Chairperson
  • Non-Exec Director
  • Other C-Suite
  • Managing Director
  • President/Partner
  • Senior Executive/SVP or Corporate VP or equivalent
  • Director or equivalent
  • Group or Senior Manager
  • Head of Department/Function
  • Manager
  • Non-manager
  • Retired
  • Other
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
Thank you

Thanks for subscribing.

Websites in our network