In September 2021, Bob Moran – then busy balancing his unlikely dual roles of Chief Political Cartoonist at the Daily Telegraph and Unofficial Cartoonist Laurette of the Great Awakening™ – got into trouble.
This trouble ultimately resulted in his losing his job (the Telegraph one, that is), forcing him to think of new ways to support his young family.
Many celebrated his fall, including some of his Telegraph colleagues. These had been leaking their discontent for some time. A year earlier, the first in a series of reports had appeared in Private Eye:
Hacks at the Daily Telegraph are increasingly horrified by their main political cartoonist, ‘Bob’, aka Bob Moran – not so much for his cartoons as for his noisy presence on Twitter, where he has become a hero to Covid sceptics and anti-vaxxers…”
Meanwhile, for the average normie, Bob’s sacking (if they noticed it at all) likely seemed well-deserved, having resulted from a reasonably rough Twitter skirmish with a model citizen of technocratic progressivism, Dr Rachel Clarke.
An active doctor in palliative care and COVID wards, Dr Clarke was also a best-selling author of three books, and an Oxford graduate (of PPE) with a background in foreign affairs journalism.
She was more recently a frequent talking head on UK news – sometimes appearing in her scrubs, as if having stepped directly from intensive care – where she would implore Boris Johnson to act more ‘decisively’ on issues such as lockdowns and vaccination, citing the purported “human cost” of any hint of hesitation deploying the New Normal in its full glory.
From her spotless Twitter account (“she/her”) to her Ted Talks on compassion and love, Dr Clarke always expressed herself in the fluent, firm, self-assured tones of the English upper middle classes. She was as perfect a picture of liberal ‘goodness’ as you could hope to encounter.
“Bob”, on the other hand. was just the anonymous presence lurking behind his seemingly mean-spirited sketches, which ridiculed almost every pandemic response, gestured towards vast global conspiracies, belittled the virus that had gripped the world in mortal terror, and scorned the institutions commonly looked to for protection and guidance.
One of the two could not be wrong. But where was ‘goodness’ really found? The palliative care doctor along with the institutions and global policies she extolled? Or the fleet street cartoonist, and the no less global network of activists and cynics whose suspicions and misgivings he had vividly articulated since the lockdowns began?
Bob Moran was just 25 when he started at the Telegraph. His only other gigs had been at the Morning Star and the Guardian. Politically, he was at that time a non-denominational satirist. He saw his role as primarily determined through a living dynamic with a particular audience.
“You had to learn how they saw things. What their view was. What they found funny, what they didn’t find funny,” he explains. “And what subjects are off limits – for example, at the Telegraph, the royal family. That’s what you were paid to do. Your job is to ask ‘what do the readers think about his story, how can I reflect that back at them, maybe make them laugh, maybe make them think about it in a slightly different way…?’”
It was anyhow extremely rare for Bob in his first eight years at the Telegraph to experience any meaningful friction with his editors or his audience. “I saw it very much as just a job. I’d try not to let too many personal feelings or passions come into,” he recollects, well aware of the retroactive irony.
This neutrality was something of an anomaly. Most cartoonists and satirists, in those pre-pandemic years, were of the left. It was COVID however that would complete the transformation of the left into a prime target of satire, rather than its dominant source.
The reason is obvious enough. As the governments of the west imposed New Normal authoritarianism – and prior, the culturally transformative policies demarcated ‘woke’ – the left almost universally applauded. Bob, conversely, would soon find himself in the role of dissident.
Sustained professional exposure to the mass media had been priming him for the role.
“Working behind the scenes means you see things in a slightly different light. You become a bit more cynical and begin to get the idea that the news isn’t always the news, but sort of a cooperative tool, or agent, to persuade people and push them in a certain direction. Push some things forward, push some back.”
Still more formative was Bob’s traumatic entry into fatherhood. His first child, Poppy, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and epilepsy resulting from medical neglect during his wife’s emergency c-section.
This story has already been told powerfully by Bob himself, in the short film, Father’s Days, an animated memoir of a first-time dad:
“That was an extreme wake-up call for my wife and I: that there’s something inherently wrong with the system – a system that’s idolised and we’re told we can trust. It seemed to us like these institutions were full of people content to just sit there and not speak up.”
Poppy’s resulting needs, not merely regarding her development, but her day-to-day survival, were intense. The most important thing that would inform Bob’s later specific perspective on lockdowns was his resulting intimacy with threat.
“You’re suddenly looking after this child who is at risk all the time from all kinds of different things in all kinds of different ways. Very much vulnerable in the true sense. She can’t see properly, and she has very limited coordination and balance. She doesn’t sense heat in the same way so she can burn herself very easily.
Her epilepsy was really bad at one point, she was having seizures for up to an hour. We went through a phase of having to rush to hospital on an almost weekly basis. I think there are very few things more terrifying than that kind of situation where your child is moments away from death.”
For Bob, the cumulative impact of all this justifiable terror alerted him to something deep in the nature of fear: its capacity, when inordinately pronounced, to crowd out love.
The more Bob discusses it, the more his family’s experience seems to anticipate, albeit via grim contradistinction, COVID safetyism. “Fear infects you, ironically, like a virus. If you let it that kind of fear will govern your entire life and you can become so scared and so obsessed with protecting your child, that if you’re not careful it can actually prevent you from loving them properly.”
Another negative resonance was the way governments frequently cited various vulnerable groups – such as the elderly and immunosuppressed – to justify the near universal privation of basic human rights throughout the period of lockdowns and threatened mandates.
“With Poppy’s seizures, if she gets ill, any kind of bug, any kind of cold, it will trigger a seizure which can be potentially fatal. When she started going to nursery, we might have said ‘right, no other children are allowed to attend if they’ve got symptoms of a cold, because this could be literally fatal to our daughter…’ we had no right to do that… to make other children suffer because our child and our family have been saddled with this.”
For most, the development of our outlook on COVID is hard to track. But Bob has his cartoons to refer to, an artistic timeline of his evolving thoughts and feelings.
His first COVID cartoon was of a globe wearing a mask bearing the words “Made in China”.
An illustrated thread on masks:
Many people are still totally devoted to the idea that 'the science' proves that masks are effective. They relentlessly share reports, research, data & pictures of people urinating on one another to prove their point. Let's pretend they're right. pic.twitter.com/rbHgU6kQAH
— Bob Moran (@bobscartoons) November 22, 2020
He remembers that there was some editorial debate about whether it constituted a sufficiently significant story or not.
Within a couple of weeks of course it was the only story, and would remain so almost exclusively for the next two years. This escalation seemed to happen overnight.
“Everyone was caught off-guard by the lockdowns,” he remembers. “It wasn’t supposed to be very long, just a few weeks, a little burst of totalitarianism to flatten the curve. If you look at my work then I still hadn’t completely decided how I felt about it. Though I instinctively thought it seemed wrong and over the top.”
Around the beginning of May 2020, something changed in Bob’s convictions – and with it his work.
The Telegraph ran his cartoon of an old man and a boy looking out to sea. The old man says to the boy “Then, of course, we realised we had no choice but to surrender our freedom, prosperity and dignity… it just wasn’t worth the risk’
We don't trade lives. We don't submit to fear and tyranny. We don't keep families apart. We don't put the longevity of the old before the prospects and freedoms of the young. We don't surrender our dignity. We don't allow democracy to be cast aside. pic.twitter.com/0ghPDuEsuf
— Bob Moran (@bobscartoons) November 24, 2020
“That was almost the exact moment I understood just how dangerous and mad the whole thing was.”
Correspondingly, the cartoonist’s heart had hardened against the clamorous appeals to ‘follow the Science.’ “Nothing in science, no data or study, could have any impact on the reason why it wasn’t moral. Science doesn’t trump morality.”
From that point, Bob developed a distilled moral loathing of lockdowns. “At best it’s trading lives. It’s saying, ‘we’re going to kill those people because we think it will let those people live longer. That is always ethically disgusting for governments. There are no caveats, no get out clauses. You can’t trade the lives of civilians.”
The work itself was inevitably becoming more critical and aggressive, focussing on the hypocrisy and destructiveness of Johnson’s government. Although this singled Bob out across the British (and even global) mainstream media landscape as a rare voice of outright dissent, his editors at the Telegraph were initially sympathetic and even encouraging.
The morphology of the Telegraph’s pandemic perspective, in fact, mirrors that of British conservatism’s at large, beginning as a voice of critique and restraint, before being stealthily absorbed within the pan-political New Normal choir.
“At first it was by and large completely acceptable to be opposed to this stuff… I was allowed to do these cartoons that became increasingly hard hitting… While I was utterly dismayed by what was going on in the world, in terms of my job I’d never felt happier. I’d never felt more inspired…”
He discerned a shift in the reception towards his work in the Autumn of 2020. It was around then that his Twitter account – where he had long been launching his most candid critiques of the pandemic politics – was starting to attract sustained negative attention.
He heard that a group of colleagues had complained to the Telegraph’s executive leadership about his positions on the virus.
“The message came back to me not to worry but to maybe be a bit more careful about my social media output.” Shortly after, the first of the Private Eye pieces appeared.
One week in October, Bob submitted a cartoon for the Sunday Telegraph depicting Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer tangoing through a graveyard. The individual graves surrounding them bore the words ‘facts’, ‘dignity’, ‘employment’ – and ‘children’.
their liver was a healthy young mother of 3.
This is where we are. This is lockdowns. This is 'Protect The NHS'. This is the 'New Normal'.
Our government is trading lives like stock options, rolling the dice in a desperate bid to protect, above all else, their weird Covid data – pic.twitter.com/uCDOlvlf8h
— Bob Moran (@bobscartoons) November 24, 2020
Bob had half expected for it to be knocked back. But in it went! The Sunday Telegraph: casually accusing a conservative prime minister (alongside the leader of the opposition) of infanticide. Bob wondered if the detail might have simply escaped an editor’s notice.
A week later though, he submitted a comparatively tame sketch of Johnson, and received a chilly knockback:
That seems very unkind to the prime minister.
The change in temperature also coincided with the growing mainstream anticipation for the incoming jabs. Our readers are very excited about the vaccine, Bob was told. They feel very reassured in Boris’s leadership. He’s got us this vaccine and what we need to do is get behind him and support him…
As a continuation of pandemic policy, delivered by the same (in Bob’s view) recklessly immoral forces that had locked up the world, Bob’s own expectations about this ‘vaccine’ were nowhere near as optimistic.
And even if the incoming injections were genuine wonder drugs, how would that compensate for the unnecessary, unjustifiable destruction wrought through lockdowns by the same people now enjoining the world to roll up its sleeve?
By December, the jab rollout was going full steam.
Then UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock was regularly pretending to cry in public, and the prevalent feeling across the mainstream media was one of gushing gratitude towards the government for rescuing the country from Covid and the apparent necessity of interminable lockdown.
Meanwhile, Bob was being regularly petitioned by his editors to turn in a “pro-vaccine cartoon” – quite the thought. Instead, a more realistic agreement was struck that, if he couldn’t draw anything nice about the vaxx, he would draw nothing about it at all.
That was in the context of his day job, anyhow. On Twitter, he was candidly sceptical of the jab, earning himself another conversation with the editors:
You’re being associated with anti-vaxxers. We as a paper will not say anything negative about this vaccine.”
…which struck Bob as a peculiarly inflexible position on a brand-new medical treatment. “What if it kills everyone that takes it?” “It won’t,” he was assured. “It’s a vaccine. And so it’s safe.”
If a more serious confrontation looked inevitable, it was to be postponed. Bob and his wife were preparing to welcome their third child to the world in January 2021, and Bob was intent on taking the full six months of allotted paternity leave.
It was the next autumn, a few months after his return to the Telegraph, that Bob read the following tweet from the account of Dr Rachel Clarke.
I received verbal abuse on public transport last night for wearing a mask – something I choose to do: (1) to protect others, (2) to try & help public spaces feel less threatening to anyone clinically vulnerable. People are dying of Covid in my hospital. *How* have we got here?
— Rachel Clarke (@doctor_oxford) September 27, 2021
I received verbal abuse on public transport last night for wearing a mask – something I choose to do: (1) to protect others, (2) to try & help public spaces feel less threatening to anyone clinically vulnerable. People are dying of Covid in my hospital. *How* have we got here?”
It was the sort of post that never failed to infuriate Bob. As he would later write in his noticeably bellicose ‘apology’, by that point, Poppy had gone almost two years without seeing “a physiotherapist, a paediatric consultant, an epilepsy consultant, an occupational therapist, an orthopaedic surgeon, an optician or a GP.”
He tapped out an acerbic quote tweet.
She deserves to be verbally abused in public for the rest of her worthless existence. They all do.”
Maybe 99 times out of a 100, Bob would have had the wherewithal to not press ‘send’ on this kind of message. But not on that day. He sent it.
The tweet soon smoked out Bob’s sizable hive of enemies. Many started sharing it with near identical expressions of outrage, tagging the Telegraph and alleging that Bob was encouraging the general abuse of NHS staff. Bob responded by tagging the NHS in his reply.
You’re employing a woman that thinks it’s OK to support policies and ideologies that harm children.”
Such was all subsequently deemed as “incitement to cause harm” – a flagrantly and bitterly ironic formulation in Bob’s eyes.
“Every single tweet in support of lockdown is an incitement to cause harm. Not verbal-abuse harm: literally killing people. Making them homeless. Destroying their businesses. It just seemed absurd to me, this total double standard, this cognitive dissonance: you’re horrible and mean for encouraging this kind of abuse while our whole orthodoxy is based on harming people for no reason.”
Bob left his response up for a while. Meantime the reaction was snowballing.
First, his account was locked, compelling him to delete the offending tweet if he wanted to re-open it. Next, he received an email form the Telegraph. Due to the situation, as well as internal and external complaints, he was to be suspended pending an investigation.
This resulted in a disciplinary hearing, where he went through his positions in detail.
He spelled it out to his employers: lockdowns were immoral, regardless of the so-called science; democracy was being trashed, lives were being lost; and the Telegraph itself – the very institution deigning to judge his behaviour – was in many ways at least as culpable as Dr. Clarke in supporting these policies and nudging public opinion in their direction.
Bob cited the Telegraph’s coverage of the vaccination of children, vaccine mandates, and the spectre of further lockdowns – policies the Telegraph or its writers had variously supported – emphasising that no tweet by him could hope to come close to the kind of historical notoriety such coverage warranted.
“If I’d have said ‘sorry I damaged your reputation’ I think they’d have actually let me stay.” But he didn’t. When asked how much he wanted to keep his job, Bob told them he was unsure.
“The whole process from when I was suspended to when I was fired involved no one from editorial. It was all the corporate side of the business… I knew there were still people, fairly high up in the editorial side, that understood my point of view and in some cases shared my positions.”
As it was recorded, Bob lost his job because of his two ‘offending’ tweets. But he’s pretty sure it was really because of his wider output. “I think there was more to it than that Twitter spat.” Regardless, he was told he was going to be fired. “It was a really difficult time those few weeks. A very scary time. What got me through it was all the people on our side.”
Already treasured as a key dissenting voice in the robust British resistance to the New Normal, Bob’s battles with lockdown advocates, and now a national newspaper, turned him into something of a folk hero.
He was overwhelmed with moral support, and even offers of material support: houses for his family to live in, money, and more. He didn’t accept any of the latter, but the show of solidarity helped him steer his household through the transitional period with a steadier hand.
“This is my audience now,” he realised. “It’s not the Telegraph readership, it’s not any ‘readership’. It’s these people, and I need to find a way of working directly for them.”
Bob had also, of course, won the complete creative freedom to say whatever he wanted, and an even larger, more global audience to say it to. The message of course could remain the same.
“It’s like all you need is an initial statement of, ‘This is kind! This is saving lives!’ and there’s no effort to interrogate it in any way,” he declares, clinchingly, towards the end of our long conversation. “To say, ‘what do you actually mean by ‘saving lives?’’ It’s like evil masking itself as benevolence all the time.”
Which is a bummer, to be sure. But not a bad social context for a political cartoonist… creatively, at least.
Here’s hoping Bob can continue tearing off those masks of benevolence for many years to come.