Dean Alston is a prolific, provocative and roundly-acclaimed cartoonist. Having published over 14,000 drawings to date and received honour with a number of awards (including a Walkley in 1991), he has since the late eighties been under the employ of WA’s state newspaper the West Australian as editorial cartoonist. Though heading into his autumn years at 66, Alston has told the ABC he has no plans of retirement and will most likely “die at his desk”. His wit has been dubbed “wicked”, and his line-work – it’s pretty great.
He is also a bigoted schmuck.
Under the coolly flapping banner of the West, Alston has repeatedly rolled out content derogatory to a full sweep of oppressed and/or minority groups. Traveling back to 1997, the paper published a cartoon of his entitled “Alas Poor Yagan”, which sought to ridicule tensions created within the Noongar community brought about by the repatriation of the warrior hero’s head (because let’s use a Eurocentric framing to both interpret and demean the unique colonialism-created issues faced by Indigenous Australia).
Despite complaints alleging Alston and the West had breached sections of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, which were brought first to the Race Discrimination Commission and later to the Federal Court of Australia in appeal, the case was ultimately dismissed and the then editor’s decision to publish pronounced “reasonable”. No action was taken against Alston or the paper.
But let’s not let decade-old grudges get the better of us; let’s believe in change. Good.
Then in November last year, Alston floated up some more scum to rest on the cultural surface. Responding to Michelle Payne’s historic achievement as the first female jockey to win the Melbourne Cup, the cartoon “Wimmin” disparaged this victory and milestone. Showing women congregating at “Camp Femdom” (“Near Dunsborough… You know… Close to the day spa”), it depicted them as shallow and air-headed, prioritising materialistic self-care over intellect-driven, labour-demanding and justice-seeking goals. It insinuated the real cause of gender inequality isn’t a systemic patriarchy, but rather women’s inherent feeble-mindedness. It grasped at the reins of women as a group – just as they were set to leap a hurdle – and gave their image a nasty tug back into centuries-old stereotype. It played feminism as a joke and attention-getting sham.
Many Australians were not amused. “Wimmin” received significant negative media coverage (SBS’s The Feed crowned Alston ‘Douche of the Week’), and incurred damage to the reputations of both the creator and the publication. The offensive content even travelled to the upper tiers of politics, eliciting condemnation from the WA Senator and Australian Federal for Women, Senator Michaelia Cash, who lodged a complaint. The UWA Women’s Department voiced their disgust by issuing a statement and launching a #BinTheWest campaign. It proved popular.
The cartoon was ultimately brought before the Independent Media Council, who declared that whilst it didn’t breach any guidelines, it was both highly offensive and definitely not funny.
Yet the West continues to carelessly enable the scattering of crude, misogynist ink. A few weeks back on June 18, Alston again scuttled in to devalue women’s laudable inroads into the overwhelmingly male-dominated world of sport. This time, his cartoon “AWFL” (sound it out) reacted to the announcement of an inaugural Women’s Australian Football League, set to kick off in 2017. From its astonishing similarities to “Wimmin”, it is clear that Alston learned nothing. The new members of the all-women’s AFL team are shown to be simpering, lackadaisical idiots – stereotypical Claremont mum transplants – arranging their clubrooms with nail salons and botox lounges, and with a half-time of “soy flat whites and de-caf lattes”. At the Grand Final, a pink-outfitted player gasps as she clutches the trophy: “Surely…Not before the blokes…I mean!” As though the idea had never entered her pretty little head.
That his cartoon coincided directly after the so-called on air ‘banter’ of Eddie McGuire and his guffawing ape-headed posse, during which they sniggered over how they’d shove female colleague Caroline Wilson into freezing water and “hold her under” too, is also timing that can’t be ignored. Lines of spiteful solidarity are fed out by those with power to make tripwires for those with less.
All this being said, whilst we maintain that Alston’s views are unsavoury to say the least, we don’t necessarily want to demonise the man behind them. Demonisation is not only a facetious activity (hem, sorry VC); it also contributes to the bloating of the demonised into undeserved significance. It elevates them. We have no great wish to do this here. For at the end of the day, Alston is – like many a citizen – just an old chump with stodgy worldviews, who reacts to the levelling of power hierarchies with sullen, fear-driven malice, and trivialises the damage done under the excuse-all of ‘just a joke (love)’.
What we find most worthy of condemnation is the fact that The West Australian should sanction such content. At best it’s lazy gate-keeping; at worst, it’s endorsement. By giving a platform to the material, the paper – which reaches 1.7 million Australians each month – reinforces and lends legitimacy to the damaging views they contain. In this specific aspect, the West becomes an apparatus which is guilty of perpetuating ideologies that not only frustrate but mock society’s continuing struggle for gender equality. And whilst publications do not – and what’s more should not – always agree with what is published under their name (the alternative is censorship and dullness), you would hope that they would use their power and reach to advance good causes rather than hinder.
So. Pelican noticed this and had a think. The West is currently in a sponsorship with us; or rather (because we don’t control our own advertising, and our budget is hardly our own), the UWA Guild. It has been since our first edition of this year, when the marketing arm of the Guild struck up an advertising contract. They have both a banner advert on our website, and an ad space in our magazine negotiated to run in five print issues. A free 12-month digital edition subscription is also offered to students (valued at around $300). There is one remaining print advertisement booked, set to feature in Edition 5, and following this the possibility to continue and expand our relationship into the future. The sponsorship is of significant benefit and value to Pelican financially – out of it, we’ve managed to pad our pockets with a tidy sum, that by commercial agreement, we’re not allowed to specify.
Oh, well. After some deliberation, Pelican came to the conclusion that we didn’t want any more of it – the money, or the association. Continuing a sponsorship with the West was neither in the sum interests of the UWA student community or women in general.
Pelican made their views known to the Guild, and found in it support. At the June Guild Meeting, a consensus was reached by all council members to request a review of content, and put on the table a termination of contract with the West. In collaboration with 2016 Guild Women’s Affairs Officer Laura Mwiragua and Guild President Maddie Mulholland, an email was delivered to the West last Saturday.
A response was issued Tuesday, signed by Editor-in-Chief Bob Cronin. Cronin expressed regret over the offence caused by the publication of the cartoon and said he would try to make sure the paper aimed higher in the future. We commend this, and hope in earnest to see the paper make good on this promise.
Yet Cronin fell short of agreeing that the cartoon was misogynist, instead labelling the area ‘controversial’. He also noted that ours was the only negative feedback the cartoon had received. His tone was in addition more one of cool, clipped admonishment than apology, stating that our “threat” put him in something of a predicament.
His board’s editorial policy had advised him that commercial considerations and editorial decisions should remain strictly separated. This division of interests was, he said, a fundamental principle which all ethical editors observed. Here he harked back to the very beginning of newspapers.
He expressed disappointment that the Pelican Editors were not intelligent enough to grasp this. (We sought advice afterwards by those with a history in the industry, and were told this was very close to approaching “bollocks”).
If they are in a pickle, pickled then be them. If the West thinks it is appropriate to continue to sabotage their own integrity and a better Australian public, they can go ahead. Fine. But we choose not to help them there. Actively. Against this idiotic status quo, we’re pushing back.
In another intriguing (though in some ways dismaying) turn of events, ABC News reported the day following Cronin’s email that a new round of redundancies had been announced at the West, as parent company Seven West Media gathers itself to swoop in and engulf the state’s only other major newspaper the Sunday Times, currently owned by News Corp (heads up on Perth becoming “the latest one paper town”).
Details are yet to emerge as to how many staff are on the chopping block, and who. Will it be Alston? Has our pushback been felt? If the West continues to publish more of the same under just another name – will it even matter?
Words by Kate Prendergast