PCC rules no breach over Steve Bell Gaza cartoon

The Press Complaints Commission has ruled that it is unable to take further the matter of a controversial cartoon about Israel and Gaza published in the Guardian last month.

Steve Bell's drawing, featuring Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu as a puppet-master pulling the strings of Western leaders, attracted allegations that it applied antisemitic tropes.

Twenty two people registered objections with the PCC on the grounds of accuracy and discrimination, but the watchdog has now considered the complaint and decided that there was no breach of the editor's code of practice. In a statement, the PCC acknowledged that many complainants found Mr Bell's image offensive, but added that the body did not address "issues of taste and offence" as it was not a "moral arbiter".

"The complainants considered the use of Jewish religious symbols, as well as the depiction of a prominent Jewish person as a puppeteer, made the cartoon antisemitic, offensive and prejudicial toward Jewish people," explained the PCC in its assessment of the cartoon. "Some complainants also felt the cartoon mirrored Nazi propaganda, with its themes of Jewish control and domination of world affairs."

But the PCC said its hands were tied, since the code's standards on discrimination did not refer to "to groups or categories of people, such as Jewish people in general".

"While the Commission acknowledged that many complainants considered the article to have been antisemitic and prejudicial toward Jewish people as a group, therefore, it was unable to establish a breach of the Code on this basis."

The PCC also stated that in order to rule on whether the cartoon breached its standards, it would have had to receive a complaint from Mr Netanyahu. "The cartoon was aimed at criticising Mr Netanyahu, and his influence, as the Israeli leader," said the PCC. "In the absence of a complaint from Mr Netanyahu, or an appropriate representative acting on his behalf, however, the Commission could not comment further."

In addition, no breach of accuracy was found, because the PCC said it was satisfied that "readers would have understood the cartoon as a critique of the Israeli government, which the newspaper was entitled to publish".

Jeremy Brier, a barrister who lodged a complaint with the PCC following the publication of the cartoon, said that the PCC's explanation that it could not protect "categories of people" meant that "most issues of Der Stürmer would have been compliant with the PCC code".

He added: "Antisemitic attacks are classically targeted not on particular individuals but on the whole Jewish population. Steve Bell has obviously found himself within this enormous loophole whereby, under these rules, Netanyahu himself would have had to complain to trigger a breach."

Last updated: 10:59am, December 19 2012