Yeah righto, Bill Leak’s dead then.
For those who knew him, he was smart, funny, a biting satirist with a wit as sharp as his pen. For the rest of the population, he was sexist, hateful, a bigoted racist with a chip on his shoulder the size of his ego. Right-wing nutjobs adored him and leftard social justice warriors deplored him.
Both sides have some very strong opinions about his death. And both sides are equally wrong.
There’s no denying the fact that at his peak, Bill Leak was a satirical force to be reckoned with. A talented artist, Leak won the Packing Room Prize twice and the People’s Choice Award once for his entries in the Archibald portraiture competition, he also collected nine Walkley Awards between 1987 and 2002.
A former “darling of the left” according to ABC 7:30 host Leigh Sales, once upon a time Leak was well known for his skewering of the Howard government. Yet, his tone changed with the ascent of Kevin Rudd’s Labor, as one might expect of any political cartoonist. However, many attributed this shift to a brain injury Leak suffered in 2008. Leak addressed this notion in his 2012 book UnAustralian of the Year,
So what was it that had turned me into a right-wing shill?
…Kevin Bloody Rudd had won the election by defeating John Howard and becoming our first Labor prime minister for 11 years.
And me? I’d turned into a fascist overnight.
Of course, a Labor government and its revolving door of leadership can’t be blamed for Leak’s racist treatment of Indigenous peoples, nor his infamous, retaliatory 2006 cartoon “No Offence Intended” depicting then Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as a dog mounting a West Papuan man.
While some may point to Leak’s brain injury as a turning point, it’s important to note that he was already headed in that direction, even before the rise of Kevin Rudd. It would be irresponsible for anyone eulogising Bill Leak to pretend that his cartoons were not damaging, both to communities and his legacy. In the last few years, Leak went out of his way to attack Indigenous communities, Muslims, LGBTIQ+ people, Safe Schools, women, Palestinians, the environment, the human rights commission – basically anyone who didn’t fit into the Murdoch media model of white, straight, conservative, male.
While a case can be made for the fact that his employer (The Australian) had a duty of care that was neglected by publishing his increasingly terrible works – exploiting a sick, old man to further their racist, backwards, hateful agenda – it shifts responsibility away from Leak. Those leaping to defend Leak since his death have generally claimed that he was of sound mind, a champion of free speech whose battle to be heard may have contributed to his health issues.
So who is correct in their assessment of Bill Leak? Was he the happy-go-lucky satirist, able to succinctly capture the public mood with one image? Or was he the evil old racist, out to crush anyone who would dare ask for civility and human rights?
He was a man. Flawed and constantly shifting in his opinions. He may have been a good friend to some, but he was also a horrid abuser for others.
If he felt there was a hypocrisy to be called out, he would take aim. If he felt threatened by modern progressives, he would fire away. Did his fall from a balcony contribute to his fall from grace? Perhaps, but his earlier cartoons would imply that he was always going to wind up where he did. No one can deny that the tone of debate in Australia has shifted dramatically over the last decade and Bill Leak was apt in his representation of conservative opinions.
So celebrate his life and his death. Remember his tremendous successes and his massive flaws. If his battle for free speech meant he could attack those less able to defend themselves, then there should be no surprise when some are glad he can no longer spew such hatred.
And if you don’t like the fact that there are those revelling in the death of your friend, in Leak’s own words, suck it up, snowflakes.