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April 26, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:13am

Steve Bell’s If… ends after 40 years at Guardian: ‘My stuff is probably too vulgar for the current regime’

By Charlotte Tobitt

Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell will see his If… strip end after 40 years following the newspaper’s Covid-19 cost-cutting.

Monday’s column teased the impending end to the long-standing political cartoon, which began in November 1981, with the final edition to be published on Thursday.

Bell, whose annual freelance contract was up for renewal this month, estimated he has penned more than 8,300 If… strips for the Guardian (starting with six a week and ending with four) and 4,600 editorial cartoons.

He will continue providing large editorial cartoons for the leader page – two every other week and one on alternate weeks, down from his current three per week.

Bell told Press Gazette: “Cartoons are great things – you can do all sorts of things, you can go places other media can’t go and do things other media can’t do. That’s what I have always loved.

“The thing about the strip is you can do things at length and in more depth and you can be sillier and ruder and sneak stuff in, but things have changed. The Guardian’s got more cautious about things and recently there’s been more strips bumped back for various reasons because somebody thinks it’s transgressing something or other, but I have been there a long time and have got used to it.”

[Read more: Spiked cartoon that sparked ‘censorship’ row between Guardian editor and cartoonist Steve Bell was ‘ill-judged’, says readers’ editor]

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He added: “Maybe I’m out of kilter with the zeitgeist. My stuff is probably too vulgar for the current regime. I will be interested to see what the response of the readers is.”

Bell said last year’s reports suggesting he had been ditched because of alleged racism, misogyny and anti-Semitism had been damaging to his reputation.

Daily Telegraph business editor Chris Williams complained to Ofcom after Bell was interviewed on RT in July and made what Williams described as “false claims of inaccuracy in my reporting” which were “damaging to my reputation”.

According to Ofcom, Bell said on RT of Williams’ tweet announcing his departure: “It was some geezer on The Sunday Telegraph. It was complete drivel, as was evidenced by the fact that he didn’t get in contact with me to check the story or get my reaction.”

The Williams tweet said: “NEW: More change at The Guardian. Steve Bell (@BellBelltoons), cartoonist since 1981 and recently accused of racism over his caricature of Priti Patel as a bull, is leaving. Contract won’t be renewed next year. Decision unrelated to wider job cuts. The Guardian has no comment”.

Bell said at the time on RT that his contract was being renegotiated, rather than cancelled.

He said: “The only thing that was resolved was that my contract, as it is, which is a very big contract with The Guardian, and this is the reason we’ve been in negotiations because they are introducing swingeing cuts so I’m probably their most expensive freelance, so we were in negotiations about reducing it. It wasn’t about being sacked for misdemeanours of any kind.”

[Read more: Steve Bell ‘stunned’ at reports he has been ‘sacked’]

Ofcom announced on Monday it had not upheld Williams’ complaint of unjust or unfair treatment, finding that Bell’s comments were clearly his own personal view and that it was reasonable for the programme to include his interpretations of and reactions to Williams’ tweet.

Bell told Press Gazette his work had in fact been cut down due to cost reductions, noting that his price had gone up incrementally over his many years with the paper, which likely wanted to find someone cheaper.

The Guardian cut 130 jobs last summer after predicting Covid-19 would take £25m off its forecast revenues for the year due to the hit to advertising, Guardian Jobs, physical events and print. However, it said last week it would pay back in full the £1.6m furlough cash it had claimed from the Government after the cost cuts contributed to a “substantially improved financial position”.

Bell said there “might be a future” for If… elsewhere if someone wants to make him an offer.

Otherwise, he has other projects he wants to pursue including a book on the Duke of Edinburgh already in the can and a children’s book which he first wanted to do 40 years ago before he “veered off” into political cartoons.

A Guardian News and Media spokesperson said: “We can confirm that Steve Bell’s If… column will be coming to an end, but he will continue drawing regularly for the Guardian’s comment section.”

Bell has fearlessly lampooned politicians, depicting John Major wearing his underpants outside his trousers, Tony Blair with one mad-squinting eye and George Bush as a monkey – but he has faced some criticism both internally and externally.

In 2019 he had a cartoon depicting Tom Watson as a witchfinder pursuing  Benjamin Netanyahu blocked.

In 2018 Guardian editor-in-chief Kath Viner spiked a cartoon accused of conjuring up Holocaust imagery by picturing Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Theresa May on either side of a fireplace containing an image of a 21-year-old medic who died at a Gaza fence protest, her red scarf drawn in flames around her head.

The cartoon leaked amid a public row between Bell and the newspaper in which he claimed he had been “censored” – but the Guardian’s readers’ editor concluded it had been “insensitively and counterproductively ill-judged”.

A year earlier Bell faced accusations of anti-Semitism after the publication of a cartoon attacking Labour’s handling of Ken Livingstone for “mentioning Hitler once too often”.

In 2015 the Guardian received more than 300 complaints over an allegedly “racist” cartoon depicting the SNP’s Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon dancing in kilts. Then-Guardian readers’ editor Chris Elliott defended Bell’s right to draw the cartoon and dismissed the suggestion it was racist.

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