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Geoff Pryor interview transcript

Who are you?

Yeah, my name's Geoff Pryor, I've been with the Canberra Times now as a political cartoonist for twenty-five years or so.

Why do you draw cartoons?

I always wanted to be a cartoonist I suppose. I always drew. Loved drawing as a kid. Drew on everything: exercise books, desktops, everything available I drew on. It was only much later when I really made the decision that I was going to do it. By that stage I had tried a couple of other things and decided that drawing cartoons was it.

What is your process for doing it?

Over the years of drawing them, I've worked it out in my mind that there are really three steps in drawing a cartoon on a daily basis. The first step is choosing the issue and this is really the hardest part, perhaps choosing the issue on the day which you think is most important and which the readers will most easily identify with. It has to be something that is worthwhile spending all that effort on. The next part of this process is deciding what I am going to say about it and this is my political point of view. The approach I'm going to take is pretty much always anti-Government. I'm paid to be sceptical and I think that's what the readers expect and the third part is how I'm going to say it, the sort of metaphor I'm going to choose. It's a great sort of business for using metaphors. We'll all do the ship of state, maybe the Prime Minister is captain of a football team or whatever, we're always looking for images or ways to make the comment. That's the best part of the job. Then having worked all these out in my head, then the thing I do is to sit down and think about how it forms in my mind and when I've more or less got an image then I'll start to draw, but not before, but that's basically it.

What I'm going to be doing, this may be tonight's. Perhaps on the free trade agreement, that's what I've been thinking about. I had an idea for a comment that needed to be made. Is Howard talking to us all, this is just a rough draft, I'll certainly rub this out and start again. Howard holding up this agreement and a sign saying if we don't endorse this agreement the economy could be destroyed in 45 minutes

What is your style?

My style I would say is pretty representational. The drawing has always been a strong part of what I do and I like the challenge of taking figures which are recognisable and making them do whatever I want. They could be falling off buildings, they could be running, they could be dead, they could be clothed, they could be unclothed, they could be anything I need them to be. So I'm using a fairly strong drawing style. I don't like using figures which have too much caricature, like little skinny legs and big heads. If I do that I find that it's very restrictive, it puts limits on what I think I can do with them.

What are you trying to achieve?

What I'm trying to do with a cartoon is to distil fairly complex subjects sometimes into skilled drawings which take a satirical look at what's happening. I'm trying to cut through, expose cant, which is the same thing as spin. Which we get a lot of that these days. It's the embellishment, the exaggeration, the lies even, that politicians use to try to persuade us to their way of thinking. What I'm trying to do is expose that. Try to do it in a way which uses ridicule. Ridicule: I think ridicule is the most powerful weapon. You know if you can make people laugh it can be a devastating weapon if you have it aimed at something or someone.

Do you only focus on negatives?

My instinct is to always go to the negative. I see myself and my editor has said so too, I'm a paid sceptic. I'm paid to be sceptical; I'm paid to be a knocker. I'm paid to be a whinger and the fact that I suppose I'm using humour and drawing softens the impact of the incessant whinging day after day on the readers. Some readers get fed up, they'll say Pryor, there he goes, knocking the Government again but that's what I see the job is.

What is the impact of your cartoons?

The impact of what a cartoonist does, is very hard to judge. I think for the reader, the reader gets the benefit of my having worked through the various issues of the day. I've sat down and concentrated on them, tried to pick my way through them, tried to get to the gist of them, what they mean for us and by doing that, that process of distillation hopefully works for the reader. Do we change anything? Well, to argue that or to suggest that would be to suggest that we actually change what politicians do and we don't of course. I think they regard cartoonists as court jesters or buffoons just as a necessary evil

Do cartoonists 'get away' with more than journalists?

Cartoonists have a charmed life but as far as things like defamation go, journalists find it much harder, it's something about having the words in print that make is especially actionable. Cartoons are subject to so much interpretation. From a politician's point of view it's difficult because if he is going to complain about a cartoon, he has to stand up in front of the world and declare that he doesn't have a sense of humour and that's a difficult thing to do, particularly when they try to be all things and everything to everybody.

Is there ever any pressure put on you about your cartoons?

I've been working here for about twenty-five years now and nobody has ever suggested, maybe one or two occasions, those have been so rare as to be forgettable. But nobody has ever suggested to me I follow a particular line. All the proprietors that have owned my newspaper or the editors I've worked for, nobody has ever suggested that I take one line or another. I know that it doesn't always happen on other newspapers, that one colleague, his State Premier put pressure on the newspaper in the political sense that they would pull Government advertising if the paper didn't go easy on them. This cartoonist was told to tone down his cartoons, well that's intolerable and its never happened to me.

Is there any self-censorship in your cartoons?

Self-censorship for all sort of different reasons, it's a difficult subject, whether you pull back, refrain because you like somebody or you're friends, that's difficult. One way of getting round this is not to make friends with politicians. Sometimes you do, you meet them socially and you get to like them, but you've got to go out of your way then to treat them the same as everybody else, make sure you don't try not to pull any punches. Another area is political correctness, where you might not want to comment on a subject because you might have a broad sympathy with that particular group within the community. Aborigines is a good case in point. Thirdly, I try and keep them relatively clean because we're a family newspaper. I love bad taste, I love it and I'll try to get away with as much bad taste as I can, but at the same time I'm not going to be deliberately crude just for a cheap laugh because you upset so many people.

How do politicians respond to your cartoons?

Sometimes the politicians respond to the cartoon. Usually when they've been in it for the first time. I know that some politicians don't like they way they are depicted but they wear it, there's nothing much they can do about it. If they express their dislike, then they're going to get it heaps more because after all, for politicians to be in a cartoon, any cartoon really, is a sign that he's arrived, he or she has arrived on the scene.

How long does it take for you to produce a cartoon?

If I've got a clear image, it can take me half an hour or less if its a simple drawing, or if it's a complicated drawing or if I don't have it clear or I'm not sure where I want the figures or the various elements of the drawing to be, it can take a while. In that sense it's like writing, if you don't quite know what you're doing to do, or what your thoughts are, you can spend an awful lot of time scrambling around trying to work it out. Cartooning is the same.

Why did you do this Australia Day cartoon?

I decided that there was an issue around about Australian values, what schools are teaching and this came from Mr Howard's comments about public versus private schools in January. It was almost a throwaway comment but guaranteed to cause a huge stir and from memory he talked about public schools being caught up in an excess of political correctness and failure to teach coherent values (from memory). So I've thought that was a comment and a comment about the subject needed to be made and it was important. Seeing that we're talking about the values of Australian schools and what those values are being taught and so forth and it was a comment which could very well sit on Australia Day as being a broad comment about where we are as a society. So in that sense, it would fit nicely into that sort of context and basically what it was, what I came up with, is the teacher, hopefully in a public school, state school posing a hypothetical question to the class which deals with the Prime Minister's own values as shown to us through his political behaviour, and which I think as a cartoonist reveals a degree of hypocrisy. I give a cartoon a title which provides a context for it. This title here, I've called it Teaching Values and so I've got the teacher, it's a long caption, if you don't mind me reading..its longer than I usually do. It's important to get all the words right. Working up to what the teacher is saying to the class, I had to try and edit it as I went and get the language natural, so what I've come up with.. The teacher is saying to the class, and the class is teenagers, they're a bit older than primary school kids.

Do you see yourself as an educator of public opinion?

I suppose I am. My view changes from time to time, day to day. Some days I feel humoured and other days I feel angry. Some days I can barely contemplate the whole business of politics, I feel let down by the sides. This comes of having to deal with it as a daily diet.