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Wednesday, 29 November, 2000, 16:02 GMT
The state of the art
Works by nominees Martin Rowson, left, and Dave Brown,
Nominees included Martin Rowson and Dave Brown
In the wake of the British Cartoon Awards, BBC News Online looks at the state of political cartooning in a world of spin over substance.

When Tony Blair's government swept to power in 1997, many a satirist mourned the passing of the Conservative era - and its easily lampooned leaders.

The nominees were
Dave Gaskill: Sun
Mac: Daily Mail
Dave Brown: Independent
Chris Riddell: Observer & New Statesman
And the winner
Martin Rowson: Guardian, Scotsman, Time Out...
No more Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady with the iron hairstyle.

No more John Major, the grey man of politics immortalised by the Guardian's Steve Bell as an ineffectual superhero wearing his crumpled Y-fronts over his trousers.

Martin Rowson, who won the political section in the British Cartoon Awards, says: "Everyone thought we'd left a golden age of satire because New Labour appeared to be very earnest and very popular.

"The view was that [political cartoons] only work when the satirist is a lone voice. Yet I prophesised that the New Labour government would be just as ridiculous as the Tories."

Rowson on the breakdown of the climate change talks
Martin Rowson: Exponent of "angry cartooning"
The Blair administration has provided rich pickings for Mr Rowson and his colleagues, in part because of its passion for spin.

Political cartoonists are particularly adept at cutting through hype and exposing the "true nature of government", Mr Rowson says.

Newsroom satire

Professor Nicholas Hiley, of University of Kent's Centre for the Study of Cartoons and Caricature, says the best cartoonists working today are those continuing the "angry" tradition which dates back to Hogarth.

John Prescott
"That cartoon looks nothing like me"
"If you compare the best that we have today with the best cartoonists of the past, they stack up very well. Steve Bell is one of the greatest cartoonists Britain has produced."

Yet cartoonists no longer corner the market in newsroom satire, Professor Hiley says.

Journalists are not as deferential towards politicians as they once were, he says.

"And photographers have taken on a lot of the tricks of the cartoonist's trade - they now snap politicians off-guard, maybe yawning or grimacing."

Tabloid v broadsheet

Although political cartoons have a higher profile in broadsheets than in the tabloids, Mr Rowson says this is only partly due to the perceived "seriousness" of the newspapers.

Mac, nominee for award
The Daily Mail's Mac takes a gentler approach
"It's to do with the layout. In tabloids, you have images coming at you on every page. There's not much room for a cartoon - even the journalists have to be very succinct.

"But in the broadsheets, there's acres of turgid copy and a cartoon serves as a point of anarchy."

Although Mr Bell, Peter Brookes in The Times, and Mr Rowson himself are widely considered worthy successors to the razor-sharp wits of yesteryear, there is a key point of difference today.

Whereas socialist cartoonists David Low and Vicky did their best work for right-of-centre papers half a century ago, today's cartoonists tend to draw for readerships which broadly agree with their politics.

Mightier than the word

Yet even when the cartoonists fix politicians firmly in their sights, the relationship between the two remains oddly symbiotic.

In the broadsheets, there's acres of turgid copy and a cartoon serves as a point of anarchy

Martin Rowson
It would seem that to be skewered on the tip of a cartoonist's pen is far better than to be ignored.

"They pretend that they don't mind and we pretend that we can make a difference," Mr Rowson says.

Some 200 years ago, an up-and-coming MP by the name of Canning lobbied cartoonist James Gilray to draw him, Mr Rowson says.

"Gilray eventually drew a cartoon of what London would be like under a Jacobite government, with the king being beheaded and such like. In the distance was a tiny figure of Canning hanging from a gaslamp."

No matter how unflattering the image, politicians almost revel in the attention.

"You might think: 'Oh, I've really got them this time', then they ring up and ask for the original," Mr Rowson says.

Chris Riddell's Obi-Wan Tony and the Phantom Reshuffle
Chris Riddell's The Phantom Reshuffle
When Gerald Scarfe drew Margaret Thatcher handbagging the then home secretary, Kenneth Baker, he must have hoped it would shame the minister.

Instead, Lord Baker of Dorking bought the cartoon and hung it in his office.

And Ann Widdecome is the proud owner of several works which depict her in a less than flattering light, according to Iain Dale of Politico's bookshop, who sold her the originals.

"The more grotesque, the better - it's almost like a badge of honour," Mr Dale says.

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See also:

12 Jul 00 | Europe
Hitler, the comic strip
31 May 00 | Northern Ireland
Painting politics in Northern Ireland
30 Nov 00 | Entertainment
Bang! Cartoon winners announced
30 Nov 00 | Entertainment
British Cartoon Awards: The winners
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