The Australian is howling offence. But calling Bill Leak a racist is 'free speech' too
Those who thunder over a protest on Q&A miss the point entirely. An often brilliant cartoonist was afforded the right to insult – just as his critics should be
Seems the Australian only recognises free speech when it’s speaking. The paper is demanding an apology from the ABC because demonstrators in Monday night’s Q&A audience called Bill Leak a racist.
Imagine! How insulting! How offensive!
All the great names have joined the fray. The former PM and mighty advocate of free speech Tony Abbott is calling for the ABC to grovel. Warren Mundine is there calling the demonstrators “idiotic morons”. Paul Kelly is thundering about the self-righteous bigotry of progressives.
Are they joking?
Bill Leak was free to draw – and the Australian was free to publish – cartoons attacking black people and Muslims. Free speech. But surely it is not news to a newspaper that citizens have free speech too.
I was there in the Q&A audience in Adelaide. Up on stage panel members were speaking with respect for Leak, carefully negotiating the difficult territory between regret for his death and regret for his work.
Then up the back, a couple of angry people started yelling that Leak was a racist. That ticks a few boxes. It’s offensive. It’s insulting. It breaks a taboo in our society about criticising the recently dead.
But it’s free speech.
After a life too short in which he lived hard, a famous cartoonist is about to be buried. It is a sad occasion. But I can’t imagine such a warrior would now be calling for a show of piety. He was a tougher man than that. He danced on graves.
I loathe political correctness. I value highly the right to say exactly what is on my mind. So did Bill Leak
The Australian, after using Bill Leak as the figurehead for a campaign for absolute freedom to offend, insult, humiliate and intimidate Jews and Chinese and Aboriginal people and Muslims, is bleating about a couple of demonstrators in the Q&A audience insulting his memory.
Can’t one of the many fine journalists who work at Holt Street knock on the editor’s door and remind him that freedom is a two-way street – that the readers are as free as the paper to mock, to challenge, to dissent?
Not according to Paul Kelly: “What happened to Bill is simple in essence. He came into conflict with the self-righteous bigotry of the educated class – the belief that across the spectrum of expression from artistic work to cartoons that progressive ideology (often called political correctness) must be affirmed, not challenged.”
You’ve got to be good to get all that into one paragraph.
But seriously, Paul, aren’t we all free to challenge? That’s not a privilege of newspapers. It’s everyone’s right. Aren’t demonstrators free to shout any more? Aren’t even the worst of all possible people – educated folk with progressive ideas – free to say those cartoons were horrible?
I loathe political correctness. I loathe false politeness. I value highly the right to say exactly what is on my mind. So did Bill Leak. It’s something we share. We also shared an understanding that we can’t speak freely unless we’re free to insult and offend. That comes with the territory.
It happened on Monday night, very briefly, in the audience at Q&A. The interruption was deftly handled by Tom Ballard sitting in for Tony Jones. No one on the panel endorsed what the demonstrators were yelling. It was over and they were out the door in under a minute.
I want “offend” and “insult” taken out of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. I don’t think the law should engage at that level. But I can’t see that this country would be a better, freer place if “humiliate” and “intimidate” went too.
That’s why I’ve watched with amazement the campaign against 18C unfold – amazement because I don’t really believe Tony Abbott and Cory Bernardi and the editor of the Australian and all the rest of them really want Australians to go about humiliating and intimidating Aboriginal people, Chinese and Jews.
That’s not what it’s really about. It’s just another battle in the tedious “culture wars” against the left. The defenders of 18C – and those outraged over Bill Leak’s cartoons – are condemned as enemies of free speech.
It’s a simple two-step: you provoke outrage and declare the outrage you’ve provoked evidence of the most astonishing things – not just a thirst for censorship, but identity politics, the cult of victimhood, reverse racism and even, perhaps, lurking sympathy for terrorism.
I can do no better than point you to Kelly in the Oz on Wednesday. The argument rolls on for thousands and thousands of words.
On the other hand, many of the cartoons Bill drew in his last years weren’t funny and we were as free to say so as the Australian was to publish them. Thank God we live in a country where both are possible. And thank God for Bill Leak. When he was good, he was the best. ■