‘We must have the freedom to offend anyone’
Aussie cartoonist Bill Leak on satire, censorship and mocking Muhammad.
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.’
Born in 1956 and celebrated for his serious portraits as much as his contrarian cartoons — he’s painted Gough Whitlam, Robert Hughes, Barry Humphries as Sir Les Patterson — Leak is in a good position to make fun of both Islam’s offence-takers and the seemingly more secular, progressive policers of offence who pepper mainstream Western politics and activism. For he’s a possessor of what he calls the ‘larrikin streak in the Australian character’. Larrikin is an Australian-English word which first emerged in the nineteenth century to refer to ‘young urban roughs’ (of which there were many Down Under) but which is now used to describe those who fart in the general direction of political and moral convention. Given that Oz was once described by DH Lawrence as a place where ‘nobody is supposed to rule, and nobody does rule’, given that one of its national heroes is a thief and cop-killer (Ned Kelly), and given that much of this hot nation still remains so stubbornly un-PC that the poor Guardian has had to set up shop there just to teach the sunburnt natives a thing or two about their ‘poisonous political climate’, it’s not surprising that this massive country of very few people has produced more than its fair share of mickey-ripping cartoonists over the decades. And, to my mind, Leak is at the top of this estimable pile of pisstakers.
Leak’s larrikinism means he doesn’t restrict himself to puncturing the most obvious forms of authority, as many a Western cartoonist does — he also lampoons newer, more insidious forms of often progressive-painted authoritarianism. He describes some of the people he likes to rile — ‘those who refer to themselves as progressives [but] are united by their hatred of progress… Keyboard warriors who have names beginning with @ and don’t differentiate between emotions and ideas’. He recognises that it isn’t only angry men in beards and cloaks who want to shut down — or even shoot down — offensive material these days; so do implacably Western, university-educated purveyors of political correctness, which Leak tells me is ‘a means of imposing totalitarianism by stealth, perfectly suited to the cowardly’. He wonders how the architects of the Enlightenment itself might have fared if they, like us, had been surrounded by armies of shushers and censors saying ‘You can’t say that!’. He says: ‘The iconoclasts, rabble-rousers and ratbags who thrived in the milieu enlivened by satire and invective that gave birth to the Enlightenment were exactly the sort of people the purse-lipped prohibitionists of the green-left intelligentsia militate against today.’
Rudd, Gillard, Abbott, the leaders of Iran, the mad Islamic state, greens, the PC, the pseudo-progressive, even Mother bloody Teresa — no one is safe from Leak’s larrikinism. (One of my all-time favourite Leak cartoons was his tribute to Christopher Hitchens upon his death in 2011, which showed Hitch horrified to find himself in Hell and thus clearly wrong about there being no God. But he finds himself shovelling hot coals next to Mother Teresa. ‘Oh well, at least I was right about you…’, he says.) Leak regularly rips new ones for climate-change alarmists; what he calls ‘baby doomers’ (young-ish adults who think everything on the planet is going to shit); bossy new authoritarians; pretend progressives. Of that last category, he says they ‘consider themselves radical [but] are anything but’: ‘They love to label as conservatives and sneer at people who believe the world was a better place when their ancestors lived in neat bungalows and had standards while they themselves believe the world was a better place when their ancestors lived in slime and had gills.’ Yep, we have our fair share of those here, too, Bill.
Leak’s devotion to sticking one in the eye of convention extends beyond the pages of newspapers. A couple of years ago, he designed cardboard covers for cigarette packs so that smokers would have something nicer to look at than the gangrenous limbs and rotting hearts our contemptuous public-health overlords love to plaster fag boxes with. Leak’s covers celebrated the pleasant, post-coital and manly aspects of smoking. ‘Smokes for blokes’, one of them said. But he was advised to ditch the covers because he might have faced a legal challenge from the Aussie government, which was then forcing through its plain-packaging law. As a then Labor health minister said of Leak’s lark: ‘Everyone likes a laugh, but when so many people die from smoking, it doesn’t seem so funny anymore.’ See? It ain’t only Islamists who think some things mustn’t be made comedic.
But Leak thinks that even in Oz, birthplace of larrikinism, once renowned for its innate, maybe convicts-derived disrespect for authority, the satirical edge is being blunted. ‘You’d think the last people to succumb to the contagion of PC would be our cartoonists, but the fact is most of them have positively embraced it, while revelling in the popularity they’ve been afforded as a result’, he opines. ‘Most of them are now so PC your average Islamist fascist wouldn’t regard them as offensive enough to shoot.’ It’s a similar story here in Blighty. I had to laugh when, after Charlie Hebdo, the Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson stood up for the right to offend and listed some of the people he has offended: Zionists, Republican Americans, Catholics, Russians, Serbs. It was like a roll-call of the British political elite’s own pet-hate foreigners! You’ve offended Zionists? How brave! And Serbs? Those people the armies of the West demonised and bombed for 20 years? What were you, cartoonist-in-chief of Western imperialism? As is the case with so many modern cartoonists, even the grotesqueness of Rowson’s drawings cannot disguise the fact that they embody the dinner-party prejudices of the most influential sections of society. Too much satire today strokes received wisdoms and flatters easy political stances rather than really lighting the fire of ridicule under the arse of authority. Even Charlie Hebdo mainly went for relatively easy targets: right-wing and racist politicians loved by few, and, of course, the Catholic Church, bete noire of the right-minded everywhere.
Leak is different: he rails against those who want to ban racist words as much as he does against racists, against killjoy greens as well as hypocritical politicians, against nutty Islamists as much as our own leaders who kill off liberty in the fight against nutty Islamists. (A recent cartoon showed a ‘Radical Without A Cause’, a spotty youth in an ISIS t-shirt telling his mum and dad he was off to ‘join his brothers in the war on Western freedoms’. ‘No need for that, son — they’re giving them away’, reply the parents.) And he thinks we need to recover the old stab of satire, its once glinting, unforgiving edge. ‘Most people adopt ideologies in preference to thinking for themselves because it takes courage, as well as a certain level of audacity, to express views of your own that run contrary to popular opinion’, he says. ‘And no one wants to be unpopular these days — except for weirdos like me.’
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.