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News > Annoucements > SEYMOUR-URE, Colin Knowlton, Professor

SEYMOUR-URE, Colin Knowlton, Professor

You are warmly welcomed to leave a message below, share your memories, and celebrate the life of Colin Seymour-Ure, who we sadly lost in 2017.
30 Nov 2017
SEYMOUR-URE, Colin Knowlton, Professor
Passed away peacefully on November 18, 2017, aged 79. He was one of the world’s leading scholars of political communications and mass media, and helped found the British Cartoon Archive.

The following obituary was published in The Times:

Colin Seymour-Ure enjoyed the fact that people often leave cartoon anthologies in the lavatory, suggesting that by doing so they were paying a perverse tribute both to the cartoons’ entertainment value and their power to cut public figures down to size. “Lavatories are a reminder of our common humanity,” he said.

In Pulling Newspapers Apart (2008), edited by Bob Franklin, Seymour-Ure discussed the role of newspaper cartoons and why, with their exaggeration and distortion, they had a place in a medium that claims to value accuracy. “They assert opinions, generally critical and often emotionally, alongside editorials using reasoned argument,” he wrote, although he also added a note of caution: “Cartoons have the potential to cause offence: a joke may be taken as an insult; a pinprick as a stab.”

He also considered the problems that cartoonists encounter, reporting how Nick Garland had a cartoon turned down by the The Daily Telegraph in 1980 because it showed Margaret Thatcher with her underpants around her ankles (The Spectator published it instead), while Steve Bell had to negotiate with The Guardian about the acceptable number of turds to have splattered around a lavatory on which crouched George W Bush. He started at nine; the paper accepted six.

Seymour-Ure not only studied cartoons, he also studied cartoonists. In 1985 he and Jim Schoff published a biography of David Low, the New Zealand-born cartoonist who drew Colonel Blimp. Low was known for his savage satires of Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini and had the distinction of being banned by the fascist dictators.

The book included 150 of Low’s drawings, many of them warning of the rise of fascism, and was described by The Times as “an eloquent testimonial to the power of the voice of sanity”. In the book, Seymour-Ure pointed out that the cartoonist’s strongest weapon was deflating mockery, rather than malice. “Low’s good nature flowed out through his brush,” he observed, a point that Low had made himself, saying: “The immoderate exaggeration inspired by malice is apt to become as tedious as too much slapstick in a farce . . . brutality almost invariably defeats itself.”

As a founding member of the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent, Seymour-Ure was one of those who helped to ensure the survival of earlier political cartoons. Although no cartoonist himself, he and his colleague Graham Thomas recognised their importance and started the Centre for the Study of Cartoons and Caricature at Kent, which later became the British Cartoon Archive. Today it holds more than 200,000 images and enjoys an international reputation.

Seymour-Ure was also looking ahead. In a paper published in 2001 he posed the question: “What future for the British political cartoon?” After tracing its history, he examined some recent themes, such as Bell’s underpants motif in Guardian cartoons of John Major, and Peter Brookes’s use of animals in his Nature Notes series in this newspaper, before concluding that their “unique quality — the ability to convey the unspeakable through graphic images — remains undimmed”.

In another paper, entitled Farewell, Camelot! and published in 2007, he discussed how British cartoonists’ portrayal of the US since the Watergate affair in the early 1970s had evolved from being “the saga of the good guys” to a style “which was more often critical, contemptuous, emotive and outrageous”. He drew attention to a cartoon by Chris Riddell in The Observer in 1997 of Tony Blair poking out of President Clinton’s fly like a penis, adding that others had followed Riddell in their depictions of American political affairs and “were ready to wallow in filth: vomit, turds, arses and rats — the iconography of sewage”.

Colin Knowlton Seymour-Ure was born in Barnes, southwest London, on Armistice Day 1938. His abiding interest in the press and its relationship with politics and government was attributed to his father, Philip Ure, who had been held prisoner for two years during the First World War and served as a Times war correspondent in north Africa 25 years later.

During the Second World War Colin’s mother, Nancy (née Cowhurst), took him and his older sister, Jean, to live in Pangbourne, Berkshire. Described as a shy, playful boy, full of energy, Colin was educated at Tonbridge School and Magdalen College, Oxford. He took an MA at Carleton University, Ottawa, and in 1962 returned to Oxford to work for his PhD at Nuffield College, taking a year off to teach at the University College of Nyasaland (now Malawi).

In 1963 he married Virginia Crowe, the granddaughter of Sir Eyre Crowe, a British diplomat who in 1907 had warned that Germany’s intentions towards Britain were hostile. She survives him with their daughter, Kirsty, a book editor and author of Dog@Home who lives in Italy, and their son, Bruce, an IT consultant in London.

When Kent opened its doors to undergraduates in 1965 Seymour-Ure was appointed lecturer in politics and government, teaching the first course in Britain on politics and the mass media. His earliest months were taken up with a heavy administrative load and dealing with student troubles, but within three years he had published The Press, Politics and the Public, which examined the role of the national press in the British political system. It was followed by The Political Impact of Mass Media (1974), which included examples of how the media had made a direct impact on British politics.

That year he was part of a group that presented a working paper to the third Royal Commission on the Press, which was considering how to exercise control over reporting standards without restricting the freedom of the press. The commission’s report recommended for the first time a written code of practice for journalists.

He was appointed professor in 1980 and later contributed to government inquiries into the role of the Downing Street press office and parliamentary lobbying. He also wrote The American President: Power and Communication (1982), which, even in the days before the White House incumbent had access to Twitter, discussed how communicating with the public had a greater level of importance for a US president compared with a British prime minister.

The government’s use of “war cabinets”, notably during conflicts in Korea, Suez and the Falklands, formed another area of interest. Writing in the journal Public Administration (1984), he considered how the respective prime ministers at the time of these conflicts surrounded themselves with a small group of ministers rather than deferring to the entire cabinet or even to parliament. He highlighted two risks of doing this, namely “the dangers of tunnel vision among the decision-makers, and the dangers of military professionals dominating the politicians”. Although he accepted that “luck and extemporisation are intrinsic to crisis management”, he concluded that “for the political control of limited wars in a cabinet system, war cabinets, natural or not, do seem an uncomfortable arrangement”.

Seymour-Ure retired in 2002, but continued writing. Prime Ministers and the Media: Issues of Power and Control (2003) considered how occupants of No 10 dating back to the 1960s had tried, and sometimes failed, to get their message across to voters. “It increasingly dawned on politicians from the late 1960s that the television studio was as much a debating chamber as the House of Commons and a far better way of reaching voters,” he noted.

Outside academia he chaired the Independent Television Commission’s committee responsible for advising on ITV’s advertising rules. He was a member of the court of the Skinners’ Company and chairman of the governing body of the Judd School in Tonbridge.
Students found him helpful and thoughtful, a valuable guide during their studies. However, one former student noted that Seymour-Ure never bought a drink, while another commented that, as a supervisor, he was so laid-back that the student had to set him deadlines.
Philip Cowley, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, described him on Twitter as “old-school — dapper, drove a sports car, the nearest thing I’ve ever met in academia to Terry-Thomas [the comedian] — but wonderful company . . . and always worth reading”.

(PH 52-57)

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