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Cartoons and offence go together as naturally as cartoons and laughter.

Reactions to cartoons depend greatly on the context in which the images are first seen – and this is usually out of the hands of the cartoonist or illustrator.

This week a national news publisher paired an image with a piece of writing by journalist Richard Littlejohn. It featured a church, a vicar, and a sign bearing the words ‘‘Poofters welcome here’’.

Because I’ve told you the drawing accompanied a column by the journalist and polemicist Littlejohn you may have a strong assumption about what the intention was here. Many people using the social networking site Twitter certainly did, and offence was quickly taken.

But the cartoonist, Gary, was satirising a real-life event, – where a B&B owner had put a sign with that wording in his window for a joke – and linking it with recent reports that gay civil partnerships may be given the status of marriage. That’s what cartoonists do, and should Gary have been expected not to use a word that had appeared in many news reports?

Press reports on the original issue in The Mirror and The Pink Paper.

Some of the offence was caused in part by the cartoon being taken out of context. This really matters in the digital world where communication of all sorts is shared and spread with incredible speed and usually without the context of its first publication.

The fact is that the only people who can tell you what the drawing means are each individual reader, and the maker. You can ask questions of the artist and the person who chose to pair the image with the words. You might also want to be clear about any business relationship between the artist and the commissioner, but any offence, or laughter, is in the eye of the beholder alone.

It’s a useful thing to bear in mind when reacting to visual communication of any sort and especially with powerful drawn content which is then shared through the  social media.

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