Trigger Warning: the following column contains offensive remarks about a racist asshole who recently died. Michael Brull explains.
Bill Leak was a racist asshole. Take a look through his cartoons, and you’ll see how boring his work was. Hardly a day went by without him loyally repeating the day’s talking points at the Australian.
Take his collection from March. Muslims are bad, and progressives are too tolerant of bad Muslims. Trans people are silly. The Human Rights Commission is out of touch. A Muslim suburb is intolerant, but progressives claim they are tolerant. Malcolm Turnbull is bad. The Human Rights Commission is out of touch. The Human Rights Commission is dishonest. Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act is bad.
Or February. Turnbull is bad. A Muslim is violent against women – which is supposedly feminist. Critics of Israel in the ALP are bad. Bill Shorten is anti-Israel because he’s Muslim. Progressives are too tolerant of Muslim intolerance. Climate change activists are bad. Human Rights Commission is out of touch. Yassmin Abdel-Magied is bad.
And so on.
In his memoirs Making Headlines, former editor of the Australian Chris Mitchell describes his process of realigning the paper “towards the centre-right”. This involved taking a harder line on asylum seekers (it was previously “on the wrong side of the debate”), and also on Muslims (“stepped up reporting of domestic terror cells in Australia”). This included Mitchell’s “first step”: to “make clear to reporters” his concerns about asylum seekers and people smugglers.
Mitchell also “repositioned” the paper on the “wider national economic debate”, and to a “strongly market-based approach to climate change”. Mitchell claimed that the “editors and political editors of The Australian are independent, apart from those very rare times when the proprietor might wish his views to be known, and that has happened very rarely in my time”.
One example seems to be the case of the 2003 war on Iraq. Mitchell claims he opposed the war. He found that it was a “tricky time to be a newspaper editor. Management ran very tight controls on all the paper’s coverage”. He said that he tried to ensure that “whatever our position in editorials, the news pages were accurate and not politically skewed towards George W Bush”. That is a careful, euphemistic way of saying that his bosses controlled what his paper could say about the war on Iraq. And that standards in the editorial section were perhaps more lax.
Let me underline that. Chris Mitchell admitted that his paper took an editorial slant, which he imposed on reporters in how they covered the news. When his right-wing slant didn’t suit Rupert Murdoch and perhaps other management above Mitchell, they stepped in to impose the correct line.
Anyone who worked at the Australian had to work within those confines. That is, they had to placate the ideological agenda of their editor, and management.
That’s what Bill Leak did. He served as a loyal commissar, pouring out daily caricatures to prop up the positions the Australian had taken. When Robert Manne wrote a critique of the Australian, Leak responded with a cartoon of naked Manne on the toilet, farting.
The idea that this puerile garbage took bravery is preposterous. He had a cosy spot at perhaps the world’s biggest media empire, and he never took a single step outside of the Murdoch Empire’s standard orthodoxies. Whenever they picked a new target to bully, Leak would be there to egg on the bullies, whilst posing self-righteously as the real victims.
It’s fitting that the Murdoch media – and even liberal stars from Fairfax and Murdoch – would remember Leak so warmly. Talking about how brave Leak was really just means praising themselves for upholding their shared positions, and pissing on Muslims, Aboriginal people, trans and gay activists and so on.
For example, Paul Kelly at the Australian claimed Leak demonstrated “courage”, “principle”, and “larrikinism”. Greg Sheridan claimed Leak was the “bravest man I have ever known”. Peta Credlin claimed him as a fallen warrior against “radical Islam”. Quadrant had some silly rant about how great Leak was, and that he was somehow oppressed by his critics. Much of the right has responded to Leak’s death by claiming he was really oppressed by section 18C of the RDA.
As I have documented endlessly at New Matilda, this is tedious hypocrisy from the Right. None of them care about freedom of speech. Their advocacy is simply cronyism – their friends and colleagues should be able to say what they like. When it comes to defamation actions and threats, or people being fired for offending them, suddenly freedom of speech is much more complex for them.
Likewise with Leak’s death. Those who celebrated Leak for being a spiteful bully who offended people every chance he got have discovered that being irreverent is really bad.
The day after he died, the headline in his final op ed included the phrase “suck it up, snowflakes”. He ridiculed Yassmin Abdel-Magied, the Safe Schools program, and political correctness. Political correctness had infected many, and “As the senses of humour of people suffering from PC atrophy, their sensitivity to criticism becomes more and more acute until they get to the stage where everything offends them and they lose the ability to laugh.”
He went on to mock the “precious little snowflake” you’ll find in a “gender studies faculty”, and their “delicate sensibilities”. Then he explained that the Human Rights Commission are as “unhinged and dangerous” as ISIS.
Leak also explained that his former editor, Nick Cater, is entirely on the same page as him, and would have make the same cartoons as Leak if he could draw. That is, as an artist, Leak displayed as much independence as Smithers did as a servant with Mr Burns. That this kind of servility was widely acclaimed as courageous is a neat illustration of the herd morality of Australian media.
Leak was kind enough to tell his colleagues that their shared opinions were really brave and daring. They heard Leak express their prejudices with a self-righteous pose, and could rest a little more complacently. They would not have to reflect on uncomfortable issues. They were right, and their critics were intolerant and uptight.
Was Australia too hostile to Muslims? Should we be more accommodating of trans people? Leak did his best to shut the door of people’s minds on any question that might cause unease.
Leak wasn’t a brave satirist. He was a boring hack, who told the conservative and privileged they didn’t have to question the status quo, and upheld every position his editor held.
Take the Don Dale scandal. Any humane person who saw the program would have been upset at how Aboriginal children were being treated. Leak responded by insulting Aboriginal parenting, in the most gratuitous way possible. Similarly, when Israel bombed Gaza in 2014, Leak highlighted the real issue: Palestinian parents don’t love their children either.
To call Leak’s racist, colonial agitprop brave is to strip language of all meaning. I don’t know about his earlier life, but in his last years, Leak was a bad person, who saw the strong bullying the weak, and rushed to humiliate the victim.
If the Murdoch press believed their own bullshit – or Leak’s for that matter – about the value of offending delicate snowflakes, they should be welcoming leftist irreverence in the face of Leak’s death. When Fidel Castro died, Tony Abbott and journos like Chris Kenny, Rita Panahi and so on complained that there wasn’t enough criticism of Castro’s life and legacy. Hell, when Nelson Mandela died, Andrew Bolt claimed the uncritical “sanctimonious grieving” was “dangerous” by leaving out the bad things he’d done.
So why shouldn’t we remember what a spiteful bully Leak was? Because they want to use his death to sanctify all the nasty things Leak said and drew. They want to use his death to hold up Leak’s viciousness beyond critique.
Sorry, but that’s not going to happen. However sad Leak’s death is for his family and loved ones, his legacy is a public question, and one that the public is entitled to discuss.
His admirers in the media should take a page out of Leak’s book and stop being such ‘delicate snowflakes’.
If they really care about freedom of speech, they should abolish our defamation laws. Then we won’t have to wait for them to die to say what we really think about them.