We're Not Sure How to Write an Obituary for Bill Leak

Cartoonist Bill Leak has died aged 61. Loved by Australia's conservatives, he was considered controversial by everyone else.

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Mar 10 2017, 5:05am

Lede image by Dan Drobik from "We Asked Some Artists to Respond to Bill Leak's Racist Cartoon"

Cartoonist Bill Leak has died of a suspected heart attack on the 20th anniversary of the death of Biggie Smalls. He was 61.

Leak was a lauded cartoonist and portrait artist, winning nine Walkley Awards and 19 Stanley Awards. He trained at the Julian Ashton Art School, got his first cartooning job in 1983 with The Bulletin, and went on to work for the Sydney Morning Herald, the Daily Telegraph, and the Australian, where he was today described by editor-in-chief Paul Whittaker as "a giant in his field of cartooning and portraiture and a towering figure for more than two decades."

Leak will be remembered, however, for his frequent courting of controversy: he recently had to move house after a cartoon in which he depicted the prophet Muhammad—his response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre. 

Then there was the deeply racist cartoon published in the Australian in August of 2016. The cartoon depicted an Aboriginal man with a beer can who could not remember his own son's name. The backlash was immediate, with the Aboriginal Land Council describing it as "disgusting, discriminatory, and racist."

The cartoon became a new frontier in Australia's tawdry culture wars, with the far-right rallying behind it, claiming Leak as a martyr for free-speech and the human face of what editor of the Spectator, Rowan Dean, described as the "evil, evil" 18C.

Leak was quick to defend the cartoon. He appeared on Lateline, saying "I honestly say to you that when the accusations of racism were directed at me, the only word I can use to express how I feel was just totally bewildered. I thought, 'how could anyone interpret it as racist?'"

Bill Leak in 2011. Image by Flickr user SCU Media Students.


The truth was of course that Leak has a history of inflammatory racist cartoons designed to appeal to middlebrow Australian readers of the boomer variety. He was particularly fond of cartoons making fun of domestic violence in Indigenous communities.

One such cartoon depicted a beaten Aboriginal woman, and two drunken men, quipping "sheilas! You give them an enriching cultural experience, and what thanks do you get?"

Another has two Aboriginal men sitting on iron barrels drinking tinnies, reading "Brough's 10 Commandments (a reference to Mal Brough's particular brand of justice). One remarks "rape's out, bashing's out, this could set the culture back 2,000 years!"

Yet another Leak "classic" depicts an Aboriginal man beating his wife, saying "you want touchy-feely? I'll give you touchy-feely."

The reality was that Bill Leak was a talented cartoonist and portrait artist and a purveyor of bigotry, which suited the publications for which he worked. Australian publishing has always been overwhelmingly white, heteronormative, and conservative. For every brilliant skewering of a politician or Leunig there was a Leak or an Alston crudely punching down. And like all bigoted comedy in Australia, Leak's pernicious satire was often forgiven by the self gratifying chant of "larrikinism." Jacqui Lambie, just now on Twitter, has shared one of Leak's caricatures of her (as a rabid dog) with the caption "your Australian larrikinism will be missed."

For many, Leak represented a holdover of the postcolonial late 20th century bigotry which has so effectively marginalised, cajoled, and bullied our most vulnerable citizens.

Yet as I write this, a narrative is forming around Leak's death. His friends, allies, and champions are claiming he was hounded to an early grave by the outrage and anger directed to him as a result of his work.

Rowan Dean came forward today, stating that "this man worked so hard caring for people and was genuinely concerned about our country. He was determined to see the right things done by the right people and he has been hounded to his grave and it is disgusting."

It's hard to say who or what is meant by "the right people" but a cursory glance at Leak's most inflammatory work shows the basic logic of an attention seeker flinging shit to dodge irrelevance.

The faux martyrdom of Bill Leak tastes particularly sour when you realise that the communities he was so fond of bullying were ones struggling with disadvantage and suicide.  The oft cited cartoon of last year was a hasty and distracting reaction to the tragic torture of young Dylan Voller. Is there an easier and crueler target than Indigenous victims of domestic violence?

Thirty years from now Leak will probably achieve something akin to the immortality that he so nakedly pined for. Children of the post water-war hellscape will be using his cartoons as document studies in history class, being asked to decipher the bigotry and anachronisms of the bygone age of Murdoch. They'll look at his depictions of Aboriginal, LGBTQI, and communities the same way we look back on the buck toothed Asiatic spoofs of the White Australia era. He'll be immortalised right alongside "two Wongs don't make a white."

At the end of the day, it will be the fossilised cronies of the Australian media who will tout Leak as a victim and a champion of free speech. But really he was neither. He was just a middling cartoonist with a bad heart.

Follow Patrick on Twitter.

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