A cartoon of Serena Williams which drew criticism from across the globe after it was published in an Australian newspaper did not breach media standards, it has been ruled.
The controversial illustration of the tennis star, published in the aftermath of her US Open final loss to Naomi Osaka in September 2018, was denounced by critics at the time as “racist and sexist”.
It portrayed the 23-time Grand Slam winner, who was involved in a heated row with umpire Carlos Ramos during the final, jumping on a racquet lying next to a baby’s dummy.
JK Rowling led widespread criticism of the Herald Sun cartoon, saying it had reduced “one of the greatest sportswomen alive to racist and sexist tropes”, while veteran civil rights campaigner Reverend Jesse Jackson called it “despicable”.
Cartoonist Mark Knight defended the drawing and insisted he was simply illustrating Ms Williams’s behaviour on the day, telling the paper: “The cartoon was just about Serena on the day having a tantrum.
“A few days beforehand I had actually drawn a cartoon of Australian Nick Kyrgios and his bad behaviour at the US Open, so I’m not targeting (Serena). Serena is a champion.
“I drew her as an African-American woman, she’s powerfully built, she wears these outrageous costumes when she plays tennis – she’s interesting to draw.
“I drew her as she is. As an African-American woman, so this whole business that I am some sort of racist, calling on racial cartoons from the past, it’s just made up. It’s not there.”
The illustration prompted complaints to Australia’s media watchdog, the Australian Press Council, raising concerns it was offensive and a prejudicial racial stereotype of African-American people.
“Specifically, concern was expressed that the cartoon depicted Ms Williams with large lips, a broad flat nose, a wild afro-styled ponytail hairstyle different to that worn by Ms Williams during the match and positioned in an ape-like pose,” the watchdog said.
In an adjudication released on Monday, the Australian Press Council said it acknowledged that some readers found the cartoon offensive, but said there was “a sufficient public interest” in commenting on sportsmanship during a “significant dispute” between a high-profile tennis player and an umpire at the US Open final.
“The council considers that the cartoon uses exaggeration and absurdity to make its point but accepts the publisher’s claim that it does not depict Ms Williams as an ape, rather showing her as ‘spitting the dummy’, a non-racist caricature familiar to most Australian readers,” it said.
It added: “The council does not consider that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid causing substantial offence, distress or prejudice, without sufficient justification in the public interest.
“Accordingly the council concludes that its Standards of Practice were not breached.”