If you ever found a Bill Leak cartoon mildly amusing, you should take a good, hard look at yourself. Bill’s gauge for emotional volume only needed to be calibrated between 9 and 11 (out of 10). Love the cartoons, or hate them: those are the sane options. No modern Australian cartoonist can claim to be so forceful, either in satirical purpose or in graphic line.
The cartoons put you on the spot; they demand a visceral reaction. It would be a bitter old wowser who claimed honestly to hate the lot, and a weirdly indiscriminate fan who could claim to love them all. Isn’t it curious how the only really funny satire is the stuff we already agree with? Leak divided his audience, image by image.
And, suddenly, there won’t be any more of them. A few hours ago I saw today’s cartoon about the former principal of Punchbowl High School and thought, “There’ll be trouble about that one.”
Well, there wasn’t time for the trouble to develop, because before I had picked the paper up off the nature strip, Bill had died of a suspected heart attack. Perhaps if all his critics staged one last howl of outrage, that would be the most fitting memorial to a remarkable exponent of Australia’s great cartooning tradition.
Let there be no talk today of left and right, of conservative or progressive. Bill was one of those rare artists who gives meaning to that ridiculously over-used word “larrikin”.
For a long time he was accused of being a rabid lefty; more recently he has been taking pot-shots at the would-be censors of the same group who used to love him when he was so rude about the Howard Government. What more do you need to know about the 2007 election campaign than this cartoon?
The truth is, he played hard and took no prisoners. There isn’t a sweet comic centre or a cherished community in his work. He took the most robust view of freedom of expression and was prepared to live with the consequences.
In recent years, that included a need for police protection and moving out of his home after cartooning the Prophet Mohammed. He lived by the pen, and has been threatened with the sword, even in 21st century Australia. He was loud in his principles, but they didn’t come cheap.
His main complaint about the Danish cartoons that caused a controversy in 2005 was that he could have drawn them so much better. Causing offense was a KPI for him, not a risk.
His 2016 cartoon, depicting an Indigenous man with a beer can who could not remember his son’s name, was called “racist and insulting” by the NSW Aboriginal Land Council. The cartoon sparked a complaint to the Human Rights Commission under section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Leak asserted his right to publish on grounds of free speech and strongly defended his cartoon. The complaint was later dropped.
Satire is not a sympathetic art, and the only justification for its continued existence in a liberal and pluralist democracy is that there are still one or two public figures shameless or deluded enough not to respond to mild and sympathetic censure. Maybe one day we will reach a state of universal sense and sensitivity, but until then we need people like Leak.
He was the smart kid at the back of the classroom who sometimes seemed only to want to get a reaction. But, good heavens, could he draw!
Both the visual and conceptual concentration of his work when on song was remarkable. A serial entrant in the Archibald Prize, his portraits show an aesthetic power that also infused his cartooning.
Some of his great cartoons combine words and images in a single frame with unforgettable clarity and force. Consider this one from the 2010 Election Campaign:
Abbott’s angry ears mirror the horns on the “Scapeboat People” and everything about Gillard’s stance suggests fluster and bad faith. I could write on for pages, but it is better for you to pause over the cartoon, to think and feel it through. Then you might go back to the world of political debate with some of the gloss scoured off our over-spun leaders and off our complacent sense of this as a generous nation.
Some cartoonists try to laugh us gently out of our foibles. The now late, still great Bill Leak was not that sort of artist. He was always after the harsh, prophetic laughter of satire, that moment of shock when you are made to see something you’d rather ignore. No wonder he annoyed and delighted us in roughly equal measure.
The slaying of the Charlie Hebdo journalists and cartoonists because of their work is the grossest attack on the value of free speech, and of course the right to life. In the deadly attack on the magazine’s office, the sword has crushed the pen: an unspeakable outrage.
An attack on liberal values
Any attack motivated by the pen upon that pen’s purveyor, whether he or she be a journalist or academic or author or satirist, is an attack on free speech. And journalists are tragically the victims of persecution, including murder, every year. Since 1992, 731 journalists have been murdered worldwide due to their work, not counting the further 373 killed in crossfire or combat, or while on dangerous assignment.
The murders of journalists tend to take place in countries with a weak rule of law. They are virtually unknown in developed liberal countries such as France. Furthermore, most work-related murder of journalists arises because they bravely speak, or attempt to speak, truth to power.
The motivation behind the Charlie Hebdo murders seems different. The cartoonists were killed, presumably, because the murderers believed its portrayals of Muhammad and Islam were blasphemous. They were killed because they refused to abide by the cultural values of the murderers, who lethally enforced their own views on the societal limits of free speech in France. This led to the outpouring of solidarity and defiance mixed with grief in huge gatherings in Paris and other European capitals.
The right to offend
Charlie Hebdo editor-in-chief Stéphane Charbonnier and his colleagues are now martyrs to free speech and satire, and in particular the right to offend. Leaving aside the obvious point that no-one should be killed because of what they have drawn, how does one characterise the Charlie Hebdo cartoons? Were they cheeky cartoons, wholly within the proper bounds of freedom of speech, or were they the product of “a racist publication”?
There is a human right to free speech, including the right to offend, a right held dear by cartoonists the world over. But there are limits. Of relevance, hate speech is prohibited in international human rights law, including that which is likely to incite hatred on the basis of religion.
The Charlie Hebdo cartoons were generally more likely to offend members of the targeted group than to generate hatred against that group. For example, its depictions of Muhammad and Islam were more likely to offend and hurt Muslims rather than generate hatred by non-Muslims against them. Such speech, to my mind, falls outside the definition of hate speech.
However, some of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons seem clearly racist – though racist speech is not always, legally, hate speech. For example, one particular cartoon portrays the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria as greedy welfare recipients. However, this discussion of that cartoon reminds us of the importance of context, which I lack as a non-French speaker who hasn’t read that edition.
The murders were more likely inspired by the images of Muhammad themselves, rather than any Islamophobic cartoons. The depiction of Muhammad, regardless of negative (or positive) connotations, is considered blasphemous and therefore grossly offensive to many Muslims.
However, there is no human right not to be offended on a religious basis. Blasphemy laws themselves are breaches of the human right to freedom of expression. That is not to say that the gratuitous giving of offence to Muslims, or the people of any religion, is desirable. But “desirability” must not be the measure of permissible free speech. And it is dangerous to hold up any religion as something which must be free from ridicule.
Charlie Hebdo deliberately published cartoons which its staff knew would offend some people deeply. It has done so throughout its history of more than four decades, with its targets including the French political and cultural establishment, and religions of all kinds. Islam was not disproportionately targeted.
Clashes between extremist Islam and freedom of speech have been prominent for more than a quarter of a century. Iran’s supreme Ayatollah Khomeini imposed a fatwa on author Salman Rushdie in 1989 over the portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad in The Satanic Verses.
Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was murdered in 2004 in Amsterdam over his film about violence against women in Islamic societies, Submission. In 2010, an episode of the cartoon South Park featuring Muhammad was censored, against the wishes of its creators, in response to death threats.
In late 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten published 12 cartoons which were critical of Islam, including portrayals of Muhammad. The episode led, in early 2006, to protests and riots, particularly in Islamic countries, and death threats against the cartoonists. In 2010, one of the cartoonists, Kurt Westergaard, was attacked in his home with an axe.
In 2006, Charlie Hebdo republished all 12 Danish cartoons, along with some of its own of a similar ilk. It has since published numerous depictions of Muhammad, as well as cartoons ridiculing Islamist extremism and aspects of Muslim life, such as the niqab. Charbonnier was placed on an al-Qaeda hitlist. Al-Qaeda is suspected of involvement in his assassination.
Death threats against material perceived as religiously offensive are not unique to Islam. In October 2014, an exhibition of Catholic iconography using Barbie and Ken dolls was cancelled in Buenos Aires due to death threats.
Australians may remember the 1997 controversy over Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, a photo of a crucifix in a vat of urine, when a Serrano retrospective in Melbourne was cancelled after the work was physically attacked. A Serrano exhibition in Avignon in 2011 closed prematurely after death threats against museum staff.
Protection was supplied to actors in Mel Gibson’s controversial 2004 film The Passion of the Christ, which attracted charges of anti-Semitism.
Outside the realm of religion, in late 2014, persons unknown – though suspected to be the North Korean government – threatened major acts of terrorism if the film The Interview was released. The movie is a comedy which depicts the violent assassination of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Production company Sony caved in to the threat, before reversing its position and authorising an internet and limited theatre release.
Nevertheless, it seems that threats motivated by the offence felt over forms of expression (for example, a book, movie or cartoon) arise more often and more credibly, and with greater lethal consequences, from extremist Islamists.
Republication of the cartoons
A final consideration is the treatment of the cartoons by the media in the aftermath of the killings. While I have argued that the cartoons should not be banned, a separate question is whether the cartoons should be displayed.
Many major media outlets, such as CNN, have refused to show the cartoons, or have shown them with pixelated images. Others, such as Daily Beast, are showcasing some of the magazine’s controversial covers. Outlets in Europe differed. In Denmark, four papers republished Charlie Hebdo cartoons (interestingly, not Jyllans Posten).
In judging the merits of such an editorial decision, context and motive are crucial. Self-censorship out of fear hands a shocking win to the Charlie Hebdo murderers, but I cannot put myself in the shoes of the editor who is genuinely concerned over the safety of staff. Nor can I criticise self-censorship out of respect for the feelings of Muslims (and others).
The tragic demise of the victims does not mean that one has a duty to offend swathes of people who have nothing to do with the atrocity. And many see the cartoons as racist and will not be morally blackmailed “into solidarity with a racist institution”. Hatred of the murders does not have to translate into love of the cartoons.
For others, it is important to show the public what the fuss is about, just as, for example, Wikipedia displays the Danish cartoons. Finally, some media outlets have published the controversial cartoons to reflect the widespread mood of “Je suis Charlie” – that is, to speak defiance to the perpetrators of this atrocity. It is one way, alongside the wonderful tributes drawn by cartoonists in response, of reinforcing the pen, and proving it can never be truly crushed by the sword.