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The media

Bill Leak: the bigger picture

Just as it took a current affairs TV program to catalyse a furore over the treatment of Indigenous children in Don Dale detention centre, so has it now taken another familiar visual medium – the political cartoon – to prompt a campaign against the Australian newspaper.

Bill Leak’s cartoon, published last Thursday in response to the Four Corners report, achieved instant notoriety. It depicts the handover of an Indigenous youth from a seemingly well-meaning police officer, who is also black, to the boy’s father, who cannot remember his own son’s name. The father is holding a can of beer, the clear inference being that he is too grog-soaked to instil in his boy the ‘personal responsibility’ the policeman is talking about.

The cartoon was broadly condemned, and rightly so. Not only does it fall far short of the ideal of political cartooning – to speak truth to power through new insights imaginatively expressed – it also indulges in racialised stereotyping (Leak has form in this area). Perhaps worse still, as Chelsea Bond pointed out in a piece for The Conversation, the cartoon was a distraction, a curious attempt to shift the focus away from the (white) guards responsible for the Don Dale outrages – the now well-documented use of tear gas, restraint chairs, spit hoods, and the rest of it – and, more generally, the problems of institutionalised racism and the disproportionately high rates of Indigenous incarceration that the Four Corners story graphically exposed.

New Matilda – once a publisher of cartoons by Leak – responded by leading calls for advertisers to withdraw from the Australian, a campaign that has already seen Suncorp pull out and the Adelaide Festival issue a condemnation of the cartoon (it is currently ‘reviewing [its] advertising commitments internally’). But Leak’s cartoon hardly exists in a bubble. In fact, as anyone who scanned the opinion pages of the Australian in the days since the Four Corners report was televised will know, the cartoon reflects a coherent editorial stance: that ‘deadbeat parents’ are to blame for the shocking stories coming out of youth detention in the Northern Territory.

Take, for example, Janet Albrechtsen’s column published the day before Leak’s cartoon appeared. ‘Who,’ Albrechtsen wanted to know, ‘is protesting about the breakdown of parenting norms and parental responsibility? And at what point do parents say: “I am going to take responsibility for my kids”, rather than try to lay the blame on others?’ There’s no daylight between this view and that expressed in the cartoon. And yet it was the cartoon that exclusively drew the angry rebukes: from, among many others, Muriel Bamblett, Chief Executive of the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency Co-Operative, the Greens’ Richard di Natale, and Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion. We might, were we being unkind, say that the latter’s interest was sufficiently piqued by the cartoon but not by Albrechtsen’s column.

But why? No doubt pictorial representations of people of colour by white men are uniquely charged and problematic, indivisible from long histories of derogatory stereotyping such as blackface. And then there is the way a political cartoon can distil an idea, making it a medium ideally suited to the rapid, self-effacing churn of an increasingly social media-driven news landscape. Cartoons, like photographs, are able to pierce, however ephemerally, the cacophony of this landscape, standing in for complex ideas and providing a shorthand for views that repulse us or align with our own. They give us what Susan Sontag called ‘ethical reference points’, capable of producing a fragile but revelatory ‘negative epiphany’. The wonder is, though, that it took an editorially uncontroversial cartoon by a serial offender to set off a campaign of pressure against organisations that advertise in the Australian.

At the centre of Australia’s interminable culture wars, the News Corp broadsheet has long been a lodestone for the ire of progressives. As Mark Davis noted in his recent essay on the history of the culture wars, it was during Chris Mitchell’s tenure as editor-in-chief of the Australian from 2002 to 2015 that ‘a worthy but dull paper’ became ‘a neoconservative Pravda’:

Through this period, as former Australian journalist Jim Buckell later wrote, what was once a pluralist paper ‘gradually gave way to the thundering of the neoconservatives’ and ‘the paper began to act more like a propaganda sheet for the right wing of the Liberal Party than a broad-based sounding board for big ideas and public policy’.

On the issue of Indigenous affairs alone – which is to say nothing of its support for war and ideologically driven foreign coverage, its specious environmental reporting, or flourishing climate change denialism – the Australian has been a worthy focus for progressive activism for the best part of two decades. Who can forget the paper’s championing of Keith Windschuttle’s odious Fabrication of Aboriginal History (2002), which argued that the Indigenous Tasmanians were ‘primitive’, ‘maladapted’, and ‘dysfunctional’? It is not hard to see that it is this same view that runs through Leak’s recent depictions of Indigenous men and women like a stream of toxic sludge.

Both Leak himself and his supporters in the Murdoch press argue that the cartoon revealed a difficult truth, and that the left has an aversion to addressing the real issues that led to the abuses at Don Dale, thus casting Leak in a typical culture warrior role: that of the heroic truth-teller battling against political correctness and lily-livered groupthink. In fact, the cartoon obscured more than it revealed. As Chelsea Bond noted, the depiction of the police officer as Indigenous erases the principal role of white people in the appalling misuses of power within the Northern Territory’s criminal justice system, the overwhelming burden of which is borne by Indigenous men.

Moreover, the cartoon is a distillation not of a complex idea but of a remarkably simple-minded one: that if only Indigenous mums and dads were better at raising their children, then boys like Dylan Voller would never have been subjected to the horrors depicted by Four Corners. In this view, and it’s one clearly shared by Albrechtsen – who, in her article, characterised the ABC’s scrutiny of politicians with responsibility for Don Dale as ‘hunting for “gotcha” moments’ – nobody else has a case to answer, and structural disadvantage and institutional racism merit no discussion whatsoever.

Nevertheless, outrage directed at a single cartoon that will quickly be forgotten is precarious at best. What, too, does it say about the political potency of this outrage that even Nigel Scullion has been able to publicly embrace it? Better – not to mention overdue – is the campaign targeting the Australian’s advertisers, but it would be better still for it to be coupled to the paper’s broader culture rather than a single illustration of it. Better yet again for it to go beyond the call for organisations to withdraw their advertisements, thus depriving the newspaper of precious revenue at a time when its profits are in free fall, and agitate for a broad-based boycott that acknowledges that Leak’s artless doodlings are merely the tip of the iceberg.

The Australian is already in a state of terminal decline but there is no reason, judging by its ever more bellicose editorialising, to suppose it will go quietly. Perhaps it was inevitable that it would take a single image to do the work that innumerable column inches couldn’t, but Leak’s cartoon should be a wake-up call for all of us – not an invitation to hit the snooze button until the next affront.

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Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Ben Brooker is a writer, editor, critic and playwright. He is the author of many published short stories, poems, essays and reviews and has written for New Matilda, New Internationalist, Australian Book Review and his blog Marginalia. He lives in Adelaide.

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