A few months ago I attended a lunch at which I was serendipitously seated next to a hero of mine, Bill Leak. Having enjoyed his work for almost two decades, I was fascinated as he shared with me some of the trials and tribulations of editorial cartooning. Now there’s no victim card in Leak’s pack, but I was horrified as he recounted having to move house due to death threats. ‘It didn’t exactly help the sale price,’ he told me wryly.
Leak’s an accomplished portrait artist, having been hung in the Archibald Prize twelve times (and twice having won the People’s Choice Award), but he is best known for his editorial cartoons which for the last 20 years have been found in the Australian. Not only is Leak’s work objectively artistically superior to the esoteric line drawings of ducks and sad people one might find in, say, the SMH or the Age, but they tackle the big issues, speak truth to power, and upset all the right people.
Readers will be aware of the recent outrage his work caused among those frequently given to such reaction. You know Leak’s done his job properly if the Facebook algorithm generates, for your convenience, a link to the Press Council’s online complaint form! Within a few hours the Great and the Good had all completed said form, with dozens of complaints being lodged to the Press Council and to News Limited, and even more grandstanding media releases and statements of inappropriateness emanating from the offices of politicians, human rights commissioners of various jurisdictions, the Aboriginal Industrial Complex, and other miscellaneous bed wetters. The admonishments were unrelenting, such that the following day he published in the paper an explanation – not an apology, mind you (he’d be dead to me if he’d apologised for this!) – and a similar cartoon, of himself being handed over to an angry and violent member of the tweeting class!
Richard di Natale called the cartoon ‘disgraceful’ and said it harked back to the worst days of White Australia. The perpetually pontificating Race Commissioner Dr Tim Soutphommasane: ‘Our society shouldn’t endorse racial stereotyping of Aboriginal Australians or any other racial or ethnic group.’ It was ‘deliberately chosen to insult Aboriginal people,’ said Professor Muriel Bamblett of the VACCAC.And on the SBS Comedy website (no, no, it does exist – Special Broadcasters really are funny), Lucy Valentine sets about reworking a selection of Leak’s cartoons ‘minus the racism’. And so ‘You’ll have to sit down and talk to your son about personal responsibility’ becomes ‘You’ll have to sit down and talk to your government about disproportionally high rates of indigenous incarceration.’ Hilarious, I know. Naturally, all of these tantrums went viral on social media, generating far more ‘shares’ than, say, Kerryn Pholi’s column in the Oz earlier in the week: ‘Yes, [the Don Dale footage] is horrific, but the real horror is that for some of these children that may be the closest experience they have had of “parenting”.’
And more ‘likes’ than Jeremy Sammut’s piece on the Speccie’s Flat White, in which he reminds us that ‘…more than 14,000 indigenous children currently live in out-of-home care, having been removed from their abusive and neglectful parents’. And more ‘retweets’ than aboriginal academic Anthony Dillon’s Oz piece: ‘The obsession with the spectre of racism is yet another distraction from discussing the more serious problems that Leak and others bring to the public arena.’
Dillon could have been addressing Aboriginal Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion directly. The senator, who had only the day before admitted misleading the ABC’s Four Corners, said that he was ‘appalled’ by Leak’s ‘particularly tasteless’ cartoon, and ‘urged’ the paper not to publish naughty pictures again. And therein lies the real scandal. We should be deeply ashamed of the appalling statistics around aboriginal health, education, incarceration and life expectancy, and as we’ve seen, lots of do-gooders want to distract us with symbolism, politeness and ‘the spectre of racism’.
But if you’re going after the cartoonist, you’re doing it wrong. And if you’re the Minister going after the cartoonist shining more light than anyone else on the reality of the aboriginal condition, you’re doing it very wrong indeed.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10