Herald Sun splashes Serena cartoon on its front page

The Herald Sun, owned by Rupert Murdoch-headed News Corp, first published the caricature of tennis champion Serena Williams on Monday, following her defeat at the US Open. Following its publication cartoonist, Mike Knight, was called out for using racist tropes to depict the American’s confrontation with the umpire.

In the midst of losing Saturday’s final, the 23-time Grand Slam champion was handed a code violation for coaching, a penalty point for racket abuse and a game penalty for calling umpire Carlos Ramos a “liar and a thief” and insisting “you owe me an apology”.She also received a $17 000 fine, stirring the tennis world and sparking a broader debate about double standards toward men and women in the sport.In Knight’s cartoon, Williams was seen jumping up and down having spat out a dummy as the umpire asks Haitian-Japanese tournament winner Naomi Osaka “can’t you just let her win?”.

While Williams was depicted using typically racist tropes, her nose and lips exaggerated, Osaka’s image was noticeably whitewashed. 

Knight, who has a reputation for controversial illustrations, was lambasted far and wide for the portrayal. Critics included the United States civil rights activists Reverend Jesse Jackson and Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King Jnr, as well as the National Association of Black Journalists.

Luke Pearson, the founder of Aboriginal media company IndigenousX, said the controversy was just another example of Australian media’s performative ignorance of racism in the country.

“This is the power of racism in Australia. The power to rewrite the narrative. The power to ignore the real victims of racism and pretend the racists are the victims,” Pearson wrote.

Michael Miller, executive chairman of News Corp Australasia, which publishes the Melbourne’s Herald Sun, defended his cartoonist.“Criticism of Mark Knight’s Serena Williams cartoon shows the world has gone too PC and misunderstands the role of news media cartoons and satire,” he said. “Poor behaviour in any sport needs to be called out.”

On Wednesday Knight’s Twitter account was no longer active, with News Corp reporting that the backlash had gone beyond criticism and that Knight and his family had received death threats.

Herald Sun editor Damon Johnston extended the defense on Twitter as he denied any racism or sexism. “It rightly mocks poor behaviour by a tennis legend,” Johnson tweeted.

Despite the outrage, the paper reprinted the cartoon alongside unflattering caricatures of United States President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, attempting to portray the controversy as an effort to curtail free speech.

In an editorial on its front page, the paper wrote: “If the self-appointed censors of Mark Knight get their way on his Serena Williams cartoon, our new politically correct life will be very dull indeed.” — additional reporting by agencies

Sarah Smit

Sarah Smit

Sarah Smit both subs and writes for the Mail & Guardian. She joined the M&G after completing her master’s degree in English Literature from the University of Cape Town. She is interested in the literature of the contemporary black diaspora and its intersection with queer aesthetics of solidarity. Her recent work considers the connections between South African literary history and literature from the rest of the Continent. Read more from Sarah Smit

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