I was prepared to give Bill Leak the benefit of the doubt over his infamous cartoon in The Australian in which he portrayed an Aboriginal child being handed back by an Aboriginal policeman to an apparently drunk father, holding a can of VB, who cannot remember his son’s name.
Policeman: “You’ll have to sit down and talk to your son about personal responsibility.”
Father: “Yeah, righto, what’s his name then?”
My instinctive reaction was to recoil at Leak being branded a racist. Not because I know Leak (I do not) or have any personal knowledge of whether he is a racist or not, but because it is such a big accusation to level at anyone. ‘Surely an editorial cartoonist should be able to make his statement without being labelled a racist’, was the gist of my initial response.
My first reaction was not to the cartoon itself. But it should have been, particularly coming as it did so soon after the ABC’s revelations about the unpardonable treatment of Aboriginal youths in Darwin’s Don Dale detention centre and the subsequent calling of the Royal Commission.
I should have looked at that cartoon. I should have thought not “freedom of speech” but at how others would see it, particularly members of the indigenous community, and especially loving Aboriginal dads and their kids.
The one good to come out of the Leak cartoon controversy was the spontaneous and emotionally charged #IndigenousDads campaign on Twitter. And it was a great good. The outpouring of love, tributes, defiance and anger at being so unfairly – and horribly – stereotyped by Leak’s cartoon was and continues to be social media at its best. Photos of dads and their kids, posted by proud and loving fathers and children alike, were just too beautiful for my inadequate words.
In defence of his cartoon Leak insisted that it spoke the “truth” about violence and abuse in indigenous communities. But whatever truth Leak may have felt compelled to highlight, the timing of the cartoon was always going to overshadow his message, such as it was.
Coming as it did in the wake of the Don Dale scandal, it is hard not to see – immediately or, as in my case, on reflection – that the cartoon might as well have been a submission to the Royal Commission that the indigenous communities have only themselves to blame.
Even if the cartoon was conceived with the best intentions, it is yet another example of European smugness, more of that “this is for your own good” crap which has worked so well in the past.
It is not good enough to protest that the cartoon simply shined a light on the violence and abuse in indigenous communities. Indigenous leaders know about those problems; they do not need reminding by The Australian. And those failings certainly should not be portrayed as if they are the sum total of Aboriginal Australia, to be represented in culturally loaded images and attitudes as old as European Australian itself.
#IndigenousDads was a timely and powerful reminder that non-indigenous Australians should look beyond discredited stereotypes in how we continue to see Aborigines. The fact that cartoons like Leak’s still appear reinforces the sad reality that most Australians do not know, do not see, do not socialise with Aboriginal Australians. If more non-indigenous Australians had blackfellas as neighbours, we might think it less acceptable that they be portrayed as they were in Leak’s cartoon.
Leak’s response to the criticism was to present a second version of the cartoon in which a perplexed and defeated Leak is being handed over by the same Aboriginal policeman to an enraged trendoid wearing a Twitter t-shirt and carrying a club and a noose.
“This bloke’s been telling the truth and he thinks it’s funny,” the policeman says.
“Let me at ‘im,” the one-man lynch mob yells.
I can see that Leak’s supporters might have been sympathetic to this portrayal, but in many respects I thought it was even more offensive than the first. It shows that there was no reflection on Leak’s part, nor any appreciation of how others might have seen his original cartoon. Leak’s portrayal of himself as the misunderstood victim makes a mockery of the systemic disadvantage and oppression of so many indigenous Australians over generations. Frankly, if Leak felt compelled to keep digging with a follow-up cartoon, you’d think it would be to defiantly present his middle finger than to bleat “poor me”.
The fact that Leak obviously concludes that the lesson to be taken from this experience is that it’s all about him reveals, if nothing else, a breathtaking lack of empathy and, worryingly for an editorial cartoonist, under-appreciation of irony.
‘Confronting and insightful’, tin-eared or just plain racist?
I remain an admirer of Bill Leak as one of our finest cartoonists. But what are we to make of this latest upset? Did the controversial cartoon reveal Leak’s inner racist, or as his critics insist yet again confirm his overt racism? His cartoon certainly provided succour to racists.
Right or wrong, editorial cartoonists tend not to back down. By the time they sign that cartoon they are prepared to defend it come hell or high Twitter. Perhaps it is their strength of conviction that gives them the daring to continually challenge readers and those they satire. To start second-guessing themselves would make their job almost impossible.
If Leak was simply too tin-eared and too close to his cartoon to understand the true dimensions of his creation, his editor had no such excuse.
In its response to the furore, The Australian issued this statement: “Bill Leak’s confronting and insightful cartoons force people to examine the core issues in a way that sometimes reporting and analysis can fail to do.”
Not untrue of itself, but in this instance we can dismiss it for the blah that it is.
What Leak’s editor should have said when the cartoon was presented was: “Bill, I get what you’re saying, but there are messages here I don’t think you intend or appreciate.”
And when Leak inevitably would have protested that The Australian could take it or leave it, the editor should have responded: “Well, Bill, we’ll leave it then.”
You were wrong on this one, Bill, and it’s not too late to admit it. I think your cartoon mentioned something about personal responsibility.
Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former associate editor and columnist with BRW and columnist for the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher