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The ghost of James Gillray

Gout by James Gillray, cartoon, etching, British visual satire, Matt Buck hack Cartoons

Gout by James Gillray @ Matthew Buck Hack Cartoons

Blogging minister of the crown, Tom Watson, writes about something he calls digital levelling. This seems to be a party political concern, that the apparently better-funded Conservative Party is streaking ahead in the fight for attention in the digital world. And so, Tom is asking for ideas to help the Labour government respond to the digital propaganda gap he thinks he sees.

So far, so unremarkable. But I think there’s something bigger at work here, and which is reflected in his appeal for humour for Labour’s political advertising.

Tom clearly thinks there is the potential for a massive democratisation of participation in politics (which may or may not coincide with an imminent general election). I agree with the theory about participation. And, I am in favour of lots of people making pictures that take the piss out of power and personalities (the Conservatives, in Tom’s case).

However, in the recent past, satire of the sort Tom is asking for was generated by paid employees of the print media and circulated through it. People tended to understand the rules in regards to the political leanings of the publication and then picked their brand of poison at the expense of the opposing political party or social group.

Political and social joke-makers survived by selling their wares into the papers. So, you’ll understand that when I say (deep breath) newspapers are dying as an economically viable, mass market circulation vehicle for the distribution of news, comment and jokes, I take no pleasure in it. The radical reduction in the cost of distribution for information has destroyed their effective monopoly. Eventually, it will do in their existing advertising-based business model, too.

One of the interesting questions – for me – is going to be who pays for this entertaining and socially healthy satire – and whether anyone will pay for it at all. The vast majority of us are self-employed, non-staff workers and so, although plenty of people will be able to pitch in, will there still be room for someone to make a living from it?

If you want examples of this growth in digital reader participation, you have only to look at the growth of Tim Montgomerie’s Conservative Home (an influential lobby group for the Conservative Party grassroots membership), Iain Dale’s Diary or, Guido Fawkes. On the other side of the fence, you have Derek Draper’s new LabourList, Liberal Conspiracy and Tom’s site. There are, of course, many other good ones too.

It seems that with the decline in the commercial, more or less neutral print market, it is inevitable that political and joke imagery will become very much more partisan, as the parties ask directly for work to bash the other side. Both sides will clearly be going straight into the digital world and in doing so, will be cutting out the old middlemen and the people who made a living from them.

This poses an old dilemma for the would-be satirist. How does one earn money to eat? And it is here that Mr Gillray’s ghost makes his appearance.

James Gillray, arguably Britain’s greatest, dead satirist, had the same dilemma back in the late 1700s – how to make a living from his skill at a being a visual smartarse. The following quote, is attributed to the artist when he was asked why his drawings were rude about the Whigs (an early non-Conservative party). The quote comes from Spartacus Schoolnet.

“they are poor, they do not buy my prints and I must draw on the purses of the larger parties”

So, are we going to see people like me directly employed by political factions again in the future? And if that happens, will it be a good or a bad thing? Is it a return to the roots of cartooning and other fun and nastiness, or a step away from the at least economically independent media industry which replaced it, possibly for good reason?

Or will no one pay at all – so that we’ll die out. Your answers on digital parchment or tablets of stone please.

Leave a Comment

  • Guido Fawkes

    There will always be a market for this material. Though video satire and jokes may be the way to go. Time to re-skill?

  • Lola

    You’ll just have to get a proper job!

  • Sunny

    Hmmm, it’s a good question.

    I think one of the ways to get around it might be to have a ‘tip jar’ next to every picture that is published on a website, so readers who appreciate it won’t mind giving a few pounds here and there. Guido should think about this more seriously. As should Mike at Political Betting, because they use cartoons more regularly than we do at LC.

    I don’t think new media will completely kill off newspapers or the media – certainly I don’t think broadcast media will suffer, and there’s opportunities to make your name in that (as BBDO has done)….

    But I think its a tough call, as it is for many journalists who aren’t sure where the future of their profession lies.

    If new media platforms in the UK become more financially viable, like TPM and HuffPo in the US, then they should def pay cartoon contributions. That’s my view…

  • admin

    > Posted for cartoonist John Jensen by Matthew Buck

    > There will always be political satire as long as there are politicians. Where political cartoons appear will depend on what media is available at any given time. If cartoons become propaganda they are no longer satire, in fact they are no longer cartoons and are more likely to come from an advertising agency. The latter will at least pay for what it commissions. Propaganda: the last refuge of the desperate!

    The Web and democratization means that everybody can now have a visible say (with mixed results). Fortunately few people can, or have the time to draw. Or perhaps they realise that cartoons on screen are less effective than those on newsprint or in a book. If an on-screen cartoon is good it will almost certainly be downloaded and printed and kept awhile.

    How to make cartoons more profitable? Sorry – haven’t a clue, although possessing a new, fresh, shiny talent might just help!

  • Paul Sorene

    A lot of the amateur stuff is scattergun – a few hits and lots of misses. But people like to surf and can put up with lots of dross. And when there is a good pic it’s circulated. I think Guido is right is saying video is the route, especially something that can be serialised. A friend blogs at Gallery of The Absurd as ’14’ – she makes money from not just skewering politicians and celebs but creating illustrations for magazines. I also work with David, who blogs at Iowahawk. Again there is a division between the name used for satire and the other name that pays better when he works elsewhere.

  • James Graham

    Matt, your modesty preceeds you. After all, you’ve managed to sell stuff to the Channel Four News website.

    You make a serious point though. I don’t think the future is necessarily in partisan groupings though – where would the parties get the money?

    There are models out there that seem to be working. Guido uses Matt and Rich (although I’ve never been able to work out whether he pays them or whether they do it for the love of surrepticiously promoting Conservativism). xkcd.com is a mini phenomenon (albeit largely non-political). The Onion is making a business out of political humour and there are UK attempts to do something similar here.

    You are in a better position than me to assess to what extent all of these are sustainable business models, but I’m relatively optimistic about the future. The internet may be slowly killing the dead tree press but it also represents new opportunities to engage with the public directly.

    An example: I was ecstatic to discover the other day that Dix’s Roll Up Roll Up (which ran in the Guardian a few years ago as a back up to Bell’s If) is now available as a print-on-demand book on Lulu.com. Cartoonists simply didn’t have opportunities like that a couple of years ago. I also think a lot of what Neil Gaiman said at his recent ORG seminar has relevance here.

    There are opportunities out there, I’m convinced of it.

    What we need is Punch 2.0 – a political satire magazine that could serve as a platform for cartoonists and, like the Onion, spins off into a variety of other media.

  • Oli

    Matt, interesting post. I’m not so sure that print is as dead as people say it is though (although I’ll grant that paid-for, mass-market dailies clearly are in trouble).

    I suspect people said similar things about radio when TV was introduced. TV forced radio broadcasters to change – most notably, I suspect, from radio being a gregarious pursuit to being a solitary one. But life went on, and even if the new medium displaced and changed the old one, it didn’t destroy it.

    Even if print *is* dead though, proper news sources online aren’t. ConHome, Guido, etc, aren’t really competing with normal news outlets and they can’t replace them. They’re more like old fashioned pamphlets and broadsides, a different kettle of fish. There will always be a place on proper news websites for satire.

  • mark

    New media need to create new revenue models. I guess the likes of Mr Gillray had no choice but to rely on wealthy patrons for their income. The emergence of a mass print culture from the 1840s onwards (thanks to the abolition of the “taxes on knowledge” and the growth of the railway network for faster distribution) meant that publishers could fund themselves from individual sales and advertising. That model changed again for television, albeit that it still relied on a bit of a mix of patronage (the BBC licence fee) and advertising.

    At present we are in something of a crisis where the structural decline of print and to some extent television too, in the face of rapidly growing web-based media, has been rapidly accelerated by the recession. Whether or not print makes much of a comeback when the current crisis is over, the people who used to fund it through paper sales and print ads are moving online – and often expect to get the same service free of charge.

    I don’t think patronage is going to be much of a way forward for “content producers” (whether cartoonists, photographers or writers), unless they happen to like producing spam. Paid employment remains an option in online publishing/content – though probably on a smaller scale than in the print world. But the new way forward may be to cut out the middle man and go direct to end users. I think it was called disintermediation before the last bubble burst back in 2001.

    Do you get enough traffic to your site to make it worthwhile adding advertising? If not, should you SEO it with a mass market in mind and then do so? Should you put the digital cartoons into a format that can go on YouTube and monetise with AdSense? I know from my own experience that the sums involved are usually peanuts, but if you can come up with something that goes viral and has a revenue stream attached it would be well worth the effort.

    Philosophically opposed to putting adverts round your own content? Why so? It’s only what everyone you sell it to does. It’s not much, but it sort of makes a contribution to the bills until a better funding model that none of us has yet thought of comes along.

  • Morten

    An interesting post Matt.
    Just a few thoughts…

    I tend to agree with John Jensen, when he says “There will always be political satire, as long as there are politicians. Where political cartoons appear will depend on what media is available at any given time.”

    To your question: “So, are we going to see people like me directly employed by political factions again in the future?” I agree with Christian Adams’ brutal but essentially true reply “We already are.(…) We work for politically slanted employers, and we follow their line. I can think of no exception. ”

    I think the concern of most cartoonists, is not to have an mass media outlet which is ideologically independent, but one that corresponds with your own ideas – and more importably lets you have a certain degree of editorial freedom. An even more honest answer would probably be that our primary concern is to have a mass media outlet at all.

    If complete ideological independence is the sole aim, there has arguably never been a better time to be a cartoonist, given that the ways of bypassing every major media institution and doing it yourself online, have never been more accessible.
    For the first time in history cartoonists can now reach a world wide audience with truly independent work.
    And if it’s good enough, people will pay for it.

    Very few people have ever a handsome living from political cartooning. The number of people who did so in the past was very small. The number of high earning cartoonists today, is also very small. And the likelihood is that the number of high earning cartoonists in the future will be small too. But they will be there.

    Of course things are changing at the moment, but whether they’re changing for the better or worse, comes down to the attitude of the individual cartoonist. Those who embrace it might succeed, and those who don’t will most certainly fail.

  • Rich Johnston

    “Guido uses Matt and Rich (although I’ve never been able to work out whether he pays them or whether they do it for the love of surrepticiously promoting Conservativism).”

    I do it for the love of publicity and the realisation that my work is reaching the people that matter. I am not a Conservative, in eighteen years I’ve voted Labour, Liberal and Ken depending on the constituency I’ve lived in at the time. I do have a particular beef with Blair (Iraq) and Brown (competency) but that’s very different.

    Also Brown is infinitely more caricaturable than Cameron.

  • hackart

    Matt Buck posting a comment from Christian Adams:

    > Firstly, I don’t think our sort of nonsense is going to die out. There will always be a place for it.

    Second, to your worry (concern) – “So, are we going to see people like me directly employed by political factions again in the future?”. The answer is that we all already are. However much cartoonists may think they are independent, outraged voices bellowing at a comatose public to wake up and see what only they can see, they are not. We work for politically slanted employers, and we follow their line. I can think of no exception

  • patrick blower

    I told my kids to avoid the media as a career at all costs. Coal-mining is a better option. But by the time THEIR kids are in the market place, the media could be the place to be again. By then, we’ll all be sick of the bottom-up, democratized, blogospherical Babel we’re living through now and we’ll demand the comfort and predictability of hierarchical, top-down journalism. Greed will then come along and find a way of making real money out of online news and it’ll back to normal- lots of us toiling for the rich man again.

  • Matthew Buck

    Feb 2014: A learned piece by my colleague Andy Davey in similar vein – http://www.andydavey.com/blog/2014/02/06/truth-power-and-cartoons-are-political-cartoons-irrelevant

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