I’ve known and admired Bill Leak for many years and we have become good friends. He is a man of courage and forthright integrity. I telephoned him as soon as Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane invited anyone offended by Leak’s “racism” over a cartoon portraying an Aboriginal father and son to formally complain to the Human Rights Commission. I offered to give evidence in support of the cartoon should he be formally charged.
I couldn’t offer much. I felt like someone who has scaled the walls of a besieged city to offer a friend a thimble full of boiling oil. He will need a lot more help than that and luckily his employer is strenuously supporting him.
Nevertheless I was also aware that hardly any of his cartooning colleagues were supporting him (with honourable exceptions like Mark Knight and Dean Alston). In fact a lot of his fellow cartoonists seemed to be decorating the state battering ram.
I find this whole affair baffling on two levels. First, let’s look at the cartoon itself. If Leak’s intention was to make some broad racist generalisation about all Aboriginals, then why did he make the policeman, holding the delinquent child, an Aborigine? The policeman represents the voice of moral accountability and ethical authority. He accuses all neglectful fathers in the end. He wants to transfer some of the responsibility for the child’s behaviour onto the parent. All parents are aware of this and we are all anxious to do our inadequate best.
By making the policeman Aboriginal Leak has instantly disarmed the charge of racism. In fact, isn’t it a trifle racist to view this cartoon as racist? Wouldn’t it be racist to insist that an Aborigine could not be a policeman? That an Aborigine could not be a delinquent, or a neglectful father? What kind of specious condescension denies a people their humanity? Are Leak’s detractors so pessimistic in their activism that they cannot accept that everyone must have agency for their own actions in order to overcome the obstacles they claim are oppressing them?
But wait. There is another angle. Why should Leak have to explain his cartoon to the government at all? There is a strong view that he should just refuse to answer to the authority of the commission, that he be a conscientious objector. Should he just insist on his right to freedom of speech and leave it at that?
I disagree with this view. I think he should defend himself. Rather than argue against the government’s right to interfere with our freedom (they can legitimately do so in cases of criminal conspiracy for example) Leak should defend himself if possible with satire.
He should force everyone to focus on the dangerous overreach of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. After all the right to offend and insult are, in part, necessary ingredients of serious argument. How else can we combat racism? And don’t tell me about exemptions in 18D. The overall intent of the act is intimidatory. You need an expensive lawyer to rid yourself of the stigma of prosecution. Look at history. Read Ben Wilson’s The Laughter of Triumph, a life of William Hone, friend of William Hazlitt, publisher of the great cartoonist George Cruikshank, and admired by Charles Dickens.
Hone should be famous. In 1817 he courageously defended himself against charges of blasphemy and seditious libel; over a satire that offended and insulted many people. He wrote a parody of the Book of Common Prayer and the Athanasian Creed. He also libelled the Prince Regent and his corrupt government for good measure. A jury acquitted him to great public acclaim.
Freedom of the press was achieved by staunch radical effort.
Journalists and in particular cartoonists, should pay attention. In a very important sense it does not matter what you think Leak’s cartoon really meant. It was an expression of his freedom to say what he likes. If we disagree with him then we should say so and let a debate begin. Everyone, thanks to social media, has the right of reply.
We are saturated in the drizzle of Twitter. I’ve come to the view that the most potent but least understood force in modern life is tribalism. A huge number of people would rather die than be disapproved of by their tribe and we all belong to a tribe. But tribal approval doesn’t guarantee thought. Politically correct box ticking is just a badge. We can all do better than that. The world will not end if we freely discuss everything. But our civilised world will end if we turn a blind eye to suppression of our freedoms, for whatever reason of plausible politeness.
Satirists in particular should get angry when some government demands an explanation for a joke. Have we willingly permitted this process? Have we cleaned the shovel of the humourless digger of our own grave? Who would have thought that some cartoonists, obsessed by big noses, bushy eyebrows on grotesquely insulting caricatures would be so placid, obsequious, and soothingly compliant in the face of censorship like 18C? George Cruikshank would not have been amused.
John Spooner was an illustrator and cartoonist at The Age for 40 years.