A controversial cartoon of tennis star Serena Williams which drew accusations of racism and sexism from around the globe did not breach media standards, the Australian Press Council has ruled.
The cartoon, by the Herald Sun newspaper’s Walkley-winning cartoonist Mark Knight, showed Williams throwing a tantrum in the wake of her loss to Japan’s Naomi Osaka in last year’s US Open tournament.
It attracted significant criticism, especially in the US, where The Washington Post wrote the cartoon reflected “the dehumanising Jim Crow caricatures so common in the 19th and 20th centuries”.
Knight denied his depiction of Williams was racist, and said he had “absolutely no knowledge” of the Jim Crow-era cartoons of African-Americans.
“I’m not targeting Serena. I mean, Serena is a champion,” Knight said in September last year.
“I drew her as an African-American woman. She’s powerfully built. She wears these outrageous costumes when she plays tennis. She’s interesting to draw. I drew her as she is, as an African-American woman.”
The Herald Sun published a defiant front page in the wake of the criticism, headlined “WELCOME TO PC WORLD”.
Press Council no breach despite offence
The Australian Press Council received several complaints over the cartoon, raising concerns the depiction of Williams included “features” which caused the cartoon to become a racist and sexist stereotype of African-American people, rather than an accurate depiction of Williams.
“Specifically, concern was expressed that the cartoon depicted Ms Williams with large lips, a broad flat nose, a wild afro-styled ponytail hairstyle different to that worn by Ms Williams during the match, and positioned in an ape-like pose,” the Australian Press Council said in a statement.
“It was also noted that the cartoon should be considered in the context of the history of caricatures based on race and historical racist depictions of African-Americans.”
The council considered whether media standards requiring publications to take “reasonable steps to avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice … unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest” had been breached.
The Herald Sun’s response to the complaints was that the cartoon was “not intended to depict negatively any race or gender”.
The newspaper said the cartoon “was drawn in a style that the cartoonist has drawn over several decades and was only intended to be a ‘sporting cartoon’ for the publication’s local readership”, the Press Council said.
While acknowledging that some readers found the cartoon “offensive”, the Press Council found there was sufficient public interest in commentary around sportsmanship during a “significant dispute” between a player of Williams’s profile and an umpire.
“As such, the Council does not consider that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid causing substantial offence, distress or prejudice without sufficient justification in the public interest,” it concluded.