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July 24, 2020updated 26 Apr 2021 4:37pm

Steve Bell ‘stunned’ at reports he has been ‘sacked’: ‘The whole thing has been a bit disturbing’

By Dominic Ponsford

Update 26 April 2021: Steve Bell’s If… ends after 40 years at Guardian: ‘My stuff is probably too vulgar for the current regime’

The Guardian has not commented on reports that its lead cartoonist Steve Bell is leaving the paper next year.

Bell has been with The Guardian for 39 years and is on an annual freelance contract to produce seven cartoons per week.

His contract comes up for renewal in April at a time when The Guardian is looking at widespread cutbacks. One possibility is that his long-running If… strip will be cut but he will continue to provide editorial cartoons for the leader page.

23/7/20 update: Steve Bell told Press Gazette: “My contract as it stands is coming to an end next year, but since I have always been on an annual freelance contract, and this has always been a process of negotiation.

“You can imagine that this has been a very difficult time for me. I don’t know how the story that I’d been sacked got about, and nobody has bothered to approach me to confirm or deny it, but it highlights the problem with social media. I certainly didn’t put it out.

“My tweet was an attempt to counter the disgusting and damaging story that I have been sacked for alleged antisemitism, racism and misogyny. I’m now pretty certain that the Guardian didn’t either. I’m a bit stunned myself, but I’m hoping for the best. I had an approach from the Guardian Press office in response to all the nonsense on twitter, so they’re obviously in the dark too.

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“Since I have for a long time been one of the Guardian’s most well-paid and prolific freelancers, and have been in negotiations with Kath Viner for some time about reducing my overall workload (I currently do seven cartoons a week), my contract as it stands will come to an end at the end of next April.

“Sadly this probably spells the end for the ‘If…’ strip after 39 and a half years, which I enjoy doing immensely, but is a hell of a lot of work for an old codger like me, particularly in full colour. I do hope to continue after next April doing large editorial cartoons.

“What I am absolutely certain of is that, firstly, any changes to my contract are a result of budget cuts, and the full story of what this means for all Guardian staff and freelancers is only just becoming clear. Secondly, no one at the paper that I know of has ever suggested that I am being got rid of for reasons of alleged or supposed misogyny, racism or some other misdemeanour.

“I must admit that the whole thing has been a bit disturbing, but I hope to be cartooning for a while yet.”

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 ruffled feathers both internally and externally and had his work spiked at least twice by editors in recent years.

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

In an email to an editor he said: “You said the ‘lawyers are concerned’ but about what? It’s not antisemitic nor is it libellous…

“I suspect the real cause is it contravenes some mysterious editorial line that has been drawn around the subject of antisemitism and the infernal subject of antisemitic tropes.

“In some ways this is even more worrying than the specious charges of antisemitism. Does the Guardian no longer tolerate content that runs counter to its editorial line?”

In 2018, Bell said he was censored by Guardian editor Kath Viner after she refused to publish a cartoon which was leaked online.

The cartoon, a reaction to the death of 21-year-old volunteer medic Razan al-Najjar at a Gaza fence protest, depicted Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Theresa May on 6 June, the day of their meeting at 10 Downing Street.

Between the leaders was a fireplace containing an image of Najjar, her red scarf in flames around her head.

Guardian editor Katharine Viner  spiked the cartoon after the opinion page team were united in thinking it was offensive, a report by Guardian readers’ editor Paul Chadwick revealed.

The incident angered Bell, who protested in two emails copied to the entire editorial staff of the Guardian, one of which contained the cartoon.

Bell told Chadwick it was not his “express or conscious intention” to leak the cartoon to the wider world with his emails.

He initially asked his fellow journalists to be “as frank as you like” about the cartoon, writing: “I wouldn’t normally do this, but I think that this cartoon, which has just been spiked, has been unfairly traduced and censored.

“I think it’s a shame because, so far, I can only find one mention of her [Najjar] on the entire website, and this would at least have been the second.”

The next morning, he wrote directly addressing Viner, saying he believed an “unfortunate precedent” had been set and that he could not “for the life of me” understand criticism of the cartoon relating to the Holocaust.

“That was the last thing on my mind when I drew it,” he said, adding: “The cartoon is sensitive, not tasteless, not disrespectful, and certainly contains no anti-Semitic tropes.”

Bell told Chadwick he was concerned about “a kind of growing visual prudishness”.

He added: “A cartoon is not a photograph nor is it an editorial. There is always a straightforward, literal interpretation, and always a wide range of often contradictory, underlying allusions, evocations, references and metaphors.

“I hope that with experience I have developed some skill in articulating these meanings, sometimes to comic effect, sometimes with ironic intent and sometimes (more rarely but just as significantly) as a direct appeal to emotion.

“This cartoon clearly falls into the latter category, which is why I was especially upset at its being spiked.”

Guardian reader’s editor Paul Chadwick sided with the editor on the matter saying: “I see the image as insensitively and counterproductively ill-judged,” adding that Bell had “delivered a clanger”.

In 2015 The Guardian received more than 300 complaints over a cartoon depicting the SNP’s Alex Salmond and Nicole Sturgeon dancing in kilts.

At the time Bell said: “I can only ask: what are the core demands of the SNP, failing Trident (that sparked the cartoon) or social justice? Obviously their core demands do not include incest and Scottish country dancing. I wasn’t seriously suggesting that they did. That was a joke. Not everyone found it funny.”

Times art critic Waldemar Januszczak said on Twitter: “I worked with Steve Bell when I was at The Guardian. He was and is an evil genius. Anyone who thinks it’s a good idea to get rid of Steve Bell is a pitiful thinker. Pitiful.”

Campaigners Media Lens said on Twitter: “Disturbing, absurd, but appropriate for the Guardian, which is now fully committed to the state-corporate cancel culture.”

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