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What the hell was he thinking?

Looking for a great Christmas present idea? I’ve been enjoying the new glorious full-colour book covering the work and “why’s” of a great Australian cartoonist. There is still time to buy it for a friend, or put it on your list. Cartoonists have leeway to say what no one else will, and of cartoonists, there are few like John Spooner.

John Spooner’s Guide to the 21st Century:  What The Hell Was He Thinking


  If a scholar in two hundred years time happened to be regarding the intricacies of Australian political life at the turn of the 21st Century, they would find few better guides…. than the cartoons of John Spooner. — Gordon Morrison

John Spooner Cartoons. The last cartoon.

John Spooner’s last cartoon, 2016. The Age.

As well as being a collection of his work, a keepsake with over 250 images, Spooner explains what was going on in the editorial zone of one of Australia’s largest newspapers as it evolved over the last 40 years.

Spooner writes about how different things were in The Age in the 1970s. (It used to be a real newspaper once). He describes the gradual closing down of dissent from the party line. He worked under 13 editors, “but with ever diminishing approval.”

Climate denier, cartoon. John Spooner.

The book is not just about the agonies of a ‘denier’.

The importance of the media and the downfall of good journalism is one theme that runs through the book. In 1975 the editor of The Age which first employed Spooner was Graham Perkin. Spooner writes that there is a youtube of Perkin years later talking about how he defined the test of a good paper: “You must be prepared to ‘run stories which may offend readers, which may lose you readers, because you believe its in the public interest.’ This was “editorial courage”. Perkins insisted that The Age was the natural opponent of government because ‘no one else represents the public’. Imagine an editor saying that now?

We’ve lost that core philosophy:

“Wherever your viewpoint was, you had a place at The Age.”
“On great matters of social or political tension,
The Age could own the whole debate.”

Book Cover, John Spooner

It’s a coffee table book which will start conversations. But also a book to read with many  explanations and thoughts.

Spooner felt right at home back then. He worked for The Age for years and said “I believed in it as a force for good.” Saying that strong media is a way to fight back against “the bullies”.

Sadly, as Spooner kept raising difficult topics, and brought in the likes of Bob Carter, Bill Kininmonth, John McLean and David Evans (all skeptics) he and The Age were growing further apart. At one point a reader wrote that Spooner had a “manic obsession with climate denial” comparable to “alcoholism”, and the editor replied that he thought the reader ‘had a point’. All that, merely because Spooner thought there were things the public ought to know.

Notably, Spooner emphasizes that The Age allowed him to express his views most of the time, but it’s obvious that it was getting harder and rarer. The culture had changed.

At times, apparently, it was only the cartoonist at The Age who was asking hard questions. In a room of senior writers and editors Spooner questioned the team “How will The Age explain to its readers the deliberate energy price rises that we have advocated?”  No one had an  answer.

A smart cartoonist is a funny one

To be funny, you have to be one step ahead of the audience. You have to join two new dots. The humor is in the surprise.

Spooner is one of the few cartoonists on the planet who grasps the scientific detail. Indeed in this book he even describes water vapor feedback and its importance correctly. Outside of scientists, almost no one is able to weigh up the issues and recognize what matters. I am always impressed with the depth of his backgrounding and the aptness of his filter.

Cartoon, Climate Denier, Kevin Rudd, John Spooner,

For those who lived through the era of Bush-Obama-Rudd-Gillard-Abbott there is a suite of his most significant cartoons from his long history as well as his thoughts about the time.

 A cartoon too far

One cartoon that would never be published “depicts a destitute tree family begging for a spare molecule of CO2 from a harsh Dickensenian naysayer in 2030”. (When the Renewable Energy Target would have reached its goal). See below, with apologies for the dark poor rendition.

Spooner describes how if he had tried to use this, the editor would have had understandable dismay. If it were printed, “The letters page editor would “have been flooded with angry Get UP style denunciations.” In other words, the righteous indignation wears nearly anyone down. The hard path is to fight for unpopular views. The easy path is also the non-controversial, boring and predictable one. We need to teach children that.

Spooner Cartoon, That didn't make the cut, CO2.

Trees come begging for CO2 — a draft cartoon that would never be published at The Age. Click to enlarge.

The book has hundreds of cartoons on topics from Trump to economics, Sept 11, Islamic Terror and national debt. Cimate battles are one chapter.

From the editors:

During more than 40 years of drawing for The Age, Spooner has confronted some of the most controversial political, social and economic issues of our era. He explains how his views about journalism, political correctness, terrorism, free trade and global warming have gradually diverged from received wisdom.

Spooner seeks to clarify the position of so-called ‘climate deniers’, ‘protectionists’ and media ‘pluralists’. He contends that Australia’s one trillion dollar foreign debt, its ludicrous energy poverty and confusion about free speech are disappointingly linked to a decline in journalistic ideals.

In words and images Spooner hopes to answer the question ‘what the hell was he thinking?’ His book contains more than 250 cartoons, drawings, etchings and paintings.

The book is so much more than climate change.

John Spooner’s Guide to the 21st Century:  What The Hell Was He Thinking  $65

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