Since the massacre of the Muhammad-mocking cartoonists, we’ve heard a lot about French satire, and about how it differs from other national satires. Apparently it’s rougher, cruder, more soixante-huitard in its scattergun spirit than, say, British satirists’ pops at the powerful. Where we’re all gentle prodding and occasionally garish caricatures of Cameron and Co, the French take a merde on anyone and everyone. But what about non-European professional piss-takers? What about those on the other side of the globe, say, in that land where women glow and men chunder, where, believe it or not, drawing Muhammad has also become a risky business of late?
‘It’s getting a lot easier to offend people because they actively seek out offence. The self-righteous these days like nothing more than taking affront.’ So says Bill Leak, Australia’s bawdiest, and ballsiest, cartoonist. Resident drawer at The Australian — Oz’s only national broadsheet, set up by Rupert Murdoch in 1964 — Leak has aimed his masterful pen at all sorts over the decades. He infuriated then Labor PM Kevin Rudd by turning him into Tintin (he also infuriated Herge’s estate), and he upped the cartoonish ante against Rudd’s successor Julia Gillard precisely when she started moaning about the Murdoch-owned media being too harsh on her (and, outrageously, like a female, flame-haired version of Charles I, set up a judge-led inquiry to ‘do something’ about what she saw as the biased, ie. Gillard-critical, press). But recently, Leak, like other cartoonists around the world, has found that those of a furiously Islamist bent ‘like to take affront’ more than most.
Three days after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, on 10 January, he drew a pic of Muhammad for The Australian. ‘I woke up the next morning and could feel a fatwa coming’, he says. His cartoon, which was reported on in news outlets around the world, many of them clearly startled that a cartoonist would rib the prophet so soon apres Charlie, showed Jesus having a go at Muhammad. Jesus is holding up the Koran and saying, ‘I’ve told you this needs a sequel!’, a reference to the fact that the Bible has both an Old and New Testament. Muhammad tells Jesus he can’t go back to Earth and sort out a sequel now because he’ll get ‘crucified’. It ended up being Leak who felt that a crucifying might be in the offing. Odd things, or rather odd people, started appearing around his home. The police were called. Leak drew them a brilliant cartoon of what one of the odd people looked like. Precautions were taken. But Leak has no regrets. ‘I think it’s worth the hassle because I’m one of those strange people who’s as optimistic as I am cynical, and I think a lot of good will eventually come of all this.’
But Leak didn’t only deride the religion whose adherents had taken such ostentatious offence at Charlie Hebdo. He also fired his ink at a newer religion: the ‘Je suis Charlie’ moment, when vast numbers of people, including politicians who can’t spell the word liberty, marched in solidarity with the French mag. The day after his depiction of the prophet, he produced a cartoon depicting ‘A right bunch of Charlies’, showing a crowd of people, including some of Oz’s illiberal leftish politicians, saying in unison: ‘Free speech! Free speech! Aslongasitdoesn’toffend!’ It’s not surprising Leak would lay into those who pay lip service to free speech yet who balk at, and try to muzzle, anything offensive; after all, his motto, as outlined in UnAustralian of the Year, his 2013 collection of drawings and thoughts, is: ‘Freedom of speech is the freedom to offend and that means the freedom to offend anyone.’
Leak is stinging on the ‘Je suis Charlie’ fashion. Of the million folks who marched in France he wonders about the thinking of the ‘970,000 of them who never bought [Charlie Hebdo] and wouldn’t be rushing out to buy copies now if they hadn’t suddenly turned into fashion accessories’. As for the politicians who marched for Charlie — ‘it wasn’t a demonstration in support of free speech, it was a celebration of freedom of hypocrisy’, he tells me. ‘They were delighted that sanctimony had survived the carnage unscathed. To have the courage of your convictions, you need two things: courage and convictions. If you don’t have any of either of them, go out and march in solidarity with someone who does and people will think you’ve got both.’