Steve Bell on the Risks of Satire

A LIFE in satire and the potential risks of his trade dominated Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell’s address at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.  Bell admitted that for more than three decades as one of Britain’s most prominent satirists, he had been worried about the possibility of physical violence as a result of his work.

“Ever since the days of Rushdie, at the back of my mind, well, those of us doing satirical issues, have thought that there’s something slightly dangerous going on,” he said. “You try to soldier on regardless, but then something happens, which of course it did back in January this year, which is the Charlie Hebdo shooting, which of course, is terribly, terribly shocking.”

Bell said that it was wrong that the French magazine had been characterised as racist in the wake of the killing of 12 members of staff by Islamic terrorists, for what they claimed was offending their religion. He explained: “I think what so many people don’t realise here about Charlie Hebdo is that these cartoonists weren’t just jobbing cartoonists, the sort of racist, cynical manipulators, they were at the top of their game. They were top of the tree. People knew their work in France, they had done children’s books, two were in their 80s, some were in their 70s, they were institutions, they were very fine cartoonists, they weren’t racist, Charlie Hebdo isn’t a racist magazine.”

The cartoonist said that he had only ever received one death threat in his time for a cartoonist in the early 90s. He said phone message left to him by someone claiming to be from the Ulster Volunteer Force, and while it had been frightening at the time, nothing more came from it. He contrasted this experience with that of American cartoonists he knew, for whom death threats, he said, “were two a penny”.

Tracing his career as a cartoonist from his early satirical cartoons at the start of the 1970s, through his time as a children’s comic artist, including being rejected by The Beano, before starting his infamous If cartoon strip with The Guardian in 1981, Bell tracked the evolution of his own unique brand of satire.   Broaching the criticism he received for his portrayal of Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in a recent cartoon, Bell insisted it had been “a joke”, and that he was half-Scots himself, but admitted that “sometimes jokes don’t work”.

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