Last week, Bleeding Cool reported on former Labour MP Chris Williamson's claims that longstanding political cartoonist Steve Bell had been sacked from the Guardian newspaper because his views were too out of kilter for the newspaper. This was picked up by a number of political websites who proceeded to claim this as some form of trophy, claiming Bell's cartoons as exploiting certain racial tropes. We also reported Steve Bell's retort that seemed to confirm his tenure at the newspaper was ending, but that this was because of already-announced Guardian cuts, which are seeing 180 staffers made redundant.
"Contract ending has everything to do with budget cuts and nothing to do with Priti Effing Patel!"
I had reached out to Steve Bell before running a story, but had initially received no response. However, Dr Tim Benson, the owner of the Political Gallery in Putney, who works with Steve Bell had a very different take on the news.
FAKE NEWS!!!! Steve Bell has not had his contract terminated.
When Steve Bells' own tweet seeming to state that he was, was put to Benson, the good doctor replied,
Yes but he is negotiating a new contract so not what it seems.
We also put this to Steve Bell, who replied to Bleeding Cool by e-mail later in the week telling us
I'm a bit stunned myself, partly as I'm not sure what the position is at the moment. I had an approach from the Guardian Press office in response to all the bollocks on twitter, so they're abviously in the dark too. I append my reply to them below, which may help explain things a little.
Here is Steve Bell's letter to Brendan O'Grady, Group Communications Director, Guardian Media Group, as provided to Bleeding Cool,
Thanks for the email. Do you realise that you are the first person from any media organisation to contact me to confirm or deny this story, which seems to have welled up in some right wing news outlets on Friday? I don't really want to confirm or deny anything, since, though my contract as it stands will come to an end at the end of next April, I was told that this was for budget reasons, by Kath Viner, some time ago this April. Since I have for a long time been one of the Guardian's most well-paid and prolific freelancers, and was already in negotiations with Kath about reducing my overall workload (I currently do seven cartoons a week), I was entertaining the (perhaps forlorn?) hope that, though this definitely spells the end for the 'If…' strip after 39 and a half years, I might continue after next April doing some large editorial cartoons. I honestly don't know what the Guardian's position is on this, but what I am absolutely certain of is that no one has ever suggested that I was being got rid of for reasons of alleged or supposed misogyny, racism or any other misdemeanour.
I have been a freelance contributor since 1981, I am not on the staff (there are no staff cartoonists – I don't know why) and, though I turn seventy next February, I do not have any pension other than a rather dismal private one, so I still need the work. I would be happy to discuss this further, especially with someone on the paper who may actually know what the position of the paper is on this.
It goes without saying that I feel horribly exposed and bitterly disappointed at the moment.
Bell also talked to the Press Gazette, who updated their previous article, quoting him saying,
"My contract as it stands is coming to an end next year, but since I have always been on an annual freelance contract, and this has always been a process of negotiation."
"You can imagine that this has been a very difficult time for me. I don't know how the story that I'd been sacked got about, and nobody has bothered to approach me to confirm or deny it, but it highlights the problem with social media. I certainly didn't put it out. My tweet was an attempt to counter the disgusting and damaging story that I have been sacked for alleged antisemitism, racism and misogyny. I'm now pretty certain that the Guardian didn't either."
"I'm a bit stunned myself, but I'm hoping for the best. I had an approach from the Guardian Press office in response to all the nonsense on twitter, so they're obviously in the dark too. Since I have for a long time been one of the Guardian's most well-paid and prolific freelancers, and have been in negotiations with Kath Viner for some time about reducing my overall workload (I currently do seven cartoons a week), my contract as it stands will come to an end at the end of next April. Sadly this probably spells the end for the 'If…' strip after 39 and a half years, which I enjoy doing immensely, but is a hell of a lot of work for an old codger like me, particularly in full colour."
"I do hope to continue after next April doing large editorial cartoons. What I am absolutely certain of is that, firstly, any changes to my contract are a result of budget cuts, and the full story of what this means for all Guardian staff and freelancers is only just becoming clear. Secondly, no one at the paper that I know of has ever suggested that I am being got rid of for reasons of alleged or supposed misogyny, racism or some other misdemeanour. I must admit that the whole thing has been a bit disturbing, but I hope to be cartooning for a while yet."
Dr Tim Benson also took issue with Bleeding Cool over the image we ran in the original article as being disrespectful to Bell but we would like to reassure him that a) it was created in the manner – and in tribute – to Bell's own decades-long library of artistic and scabrous work and b) from his letter to the Guardian, it seems to have summed up his general mood, pretty accurately.
As ever, I remain a fan of Bell and he remains my primary influence as a cartoonist, even if my current organ of publication is one located far from his own political axis. Personally I always think a cartoonist should be at odds with his publication in some form or other, otherwise what would the readers have to complain about?