A tribute to Bill Leak

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The Twitternutters are out in force blaming the Human Rights Commissioner for persecuting Bill Leak into the grave. “Gillian Triggs should be charged with his death!” one opined. Bill would have laughed about that.

Sadly for his family, beyond despair at his sudden death, many on the left are expressing naked glee. “Bill Leak is dead, no great loss. RIP you racist SOB”, tweeted another. Bill would have laughed about that too, while issuing instructions as to where his assailant should go with grin and a rousing expletive.

The chagrin is shabby but understandable, at least from those who did not know him. In a professional sense, although certainly not in his personal life, Bill Leak did insult minorities: Aborigines, gays, Muslims, Catholics, others too.

Like many right-wing ideologues, Bill had been proselytised. For the 30 years I had known him, and known him never to be a bigot but rather to embrace all people regardless of race, gender, sexual preference, creed or class, Bill Leak had been a raging leftie. In those days he was busy insulting right-wingers.

As a columnist on the Australian newspaper at the time, this writer spent many a long day and night with Bill. He used to give former prime minister John Howard hell. As the invasion of Iraq was in train, and the George W Bush acolytes at The Oz were cheering it on, we used to joke about the chances of Bill slipping a drawing past the editors of John Howard’s head immured in Dubya’s backside.

He wandered over one afternoon tickled pink, clutching the very cartoon, held it up and beamed, “We’re on!” It was a beauty.

Personally, I found some of his later illustrations to be distasteful and empathise with those who found them offensive. Yet it is worth giving some thought as to whether it is true, as Bill said, that he was just doing his job as a cartoonist and provoking debate.

The question ought to be posed, when he did go too far and caused hurt, how much of this hurt was personal hurt and how much was tribal handwringing and indignation as Bill had intended?

I suspect mostly the latter. When the dust settled and his most dogged ideological adversaries and supporters still thought the same thing, surely the public at large was better for the debate.

Confronted with an array of opinions, those who absorb a debate will often emerge with greater knowledge and nuance; accepting that there are indeed two sides, or many sides, to a story.

It was often the case that those who responded with venom, either for the cartoonist’s right to freely express a view (though often that view was ironic) or to silence him, that the process of community venting over a sensitive issue was a valuable one; one of catharsis, a setting of standards. In the aftermath, I often felt as though my understanding of an issue had evolved and my compassion had been heightened for the plight of a disadvantaged minority.

If you take the view that people are generally decent, no matter how vile on social media – and sections of social media are far more insulting than Bill Leak ever was – then it is better to have the debate. Standards will fall where they may. People whose response is disproportionate to the original provocation will be suitably chastised, though they may rarely be gracious enough to admit it.

This brings the issue of community standards themselves. They are not necessarily right just because they are standard. They should be challenged. If they are wrong, inhumane, there may be an uproar but they will be condemned by history.

It is a far more sinister thing than Bill Leak vilifying or being vilified that oppression might arise because things were not subject to the test of public debate, that some populist movement might somehow silence its opponents and lay the foundations for tyranny.

I never intended at all to write a story about Bill, or even pay my respects via a tweet. It would have been too trite a homage from somebody who has known him for 30 years.

Some things surpass friendship however. And the torrents of fury over his passing are of broader pubic significance.

If Bill was inspired by anything it was not the desire to offend but the desire to be in the spotlight, test the boundaries of free speech and foment debate. Bill had always courted controversy, he had always lived hard, and claims that the pressure of the Human Rights Commission lawsuit killed him are ridiculous.

The man was a unique talent. A superb artist, a portrait painter with few peers, a jazz pianist, a father loved by his children, a charismatic and generous person and a terrific friend to many. As a someone who was larger than life, Bill Leak would be surely be amused that, in death, he is still larger than life.

  • Marilyn Shepherd

    I only spent one evening with Bill and Philip Adams when Philip came to Adelaide for the festival of ideas. It was while we were invading and dropping bombs on Afghanistan and Iraq and those two wars enraged both these men and the audience in general, as did the treatment of the refugees who fled those wars.
    I have to say I found Bill to be warm, funny, easy to talk to and laugh with, he was 3 years younger than me.
    But in recent years, since his accident or since Chris Mitchell’s right wing rule at the Australia I found that Bill became more and more offensive – the cartoon that caused a furor did so because he entirely missed the point, as did almost all the white old male media. The point of the Don Dale story was not about aboriginal dads forgetting their kids names, the point of the story missed by all and sundry was white men bashing up aboriginal kids in prison for doing nothing much at all.
    I won’t gloat about Bill’s death, I admired him for many, many years.

    • michael

      Yes, it is sad that he drank the News Ltd Koolaid in recent years and became a divisive figure. I would agree with some on Twitter too that there is a big difference between lampooning the powerful and lampooning the powerless and the oppressed. I think he probably suffered personally from the Aboriginal cartoon and some others but, in terms of damage done, I take the view that the backlash from these controversial cartoons actually added to the national debate and brought awareness. Hence my position on free speech. When somebody makes a ratbag point, and the community rises up and debunks it, it can be a good thing.

  • Lewis Bailey

    In December 2016, Bill Leak wrote a cogent defence of his “infamous dissolute aboriginal father” cartoon. He entitled it, “A Thousand Words”. I heartily recommend its reading … https://spectator.com.au/2016/12/a-thousand-words/

    Vale Bill