“Yes there is a freedom of speech issue here.
But there is also a dying in a ball of flame issue.”
First Dog On The Moon
Halfway into the first day of Byron Bay Writers Festival, I poke my head sheepishly into the back of the tent a few minutes after start time. The stage is empty, and I find myself a seat as I ponder that cartoonists may be as tardy as I am.
The daydream bubble that’s appeared next to my head, containing visions of myself as a tardy cartoonist, explodes as I remember I can’t draw; then, the filling stage is greeted with much applause.
These are the rock stars of the writers festival, the ones who, if displeased with the content of the mini-bar, will cartoon about it, embarrassing the festival into stocking it amply next year.
With four of Australia’s top cartoonists on one panel, this session is bound to be a bit chaotic. I wish they were giving their panel Mr Squiggle style, but you can’t have everything. It’s a lot more like a chat among witty articulate friends after a few beers, but they are careful to get to the point nonetheless.
The panel agrees they are far from the frontline, as hinted in the session title. Besides having to perform some dodgy maneuvers, and sleight of hand, to get things past editors and legal departments, they consider themselves to have it pretty cozy here in Australia. The worst thing that happens is a flood of angry emails or, in the case of The Courier-Mail’s Sean Leahy, Murdoch following him around buying every paper he works for.
Sometimes the cartoonists would produce a work they were sure they would ‘lose their jobs’ over. But then, the subject of the cartoon would be on the phone the next day. Not to complain, but to congratulate the cartoonist and ask to buy the original.
The Guardian’s First Dog On The Moon says that no matter how hard he tries to offend people, all he’s managed is to acquire a pet web troll.
The only politician that doesn’t seem to notice the cartoons is Tony Abbott.
The panel agrees that this freedom is in stark contrast to the experience of cartoonists around the world, particularly those drawing from within dangerous regimes with more aggressive control over the press.
“Cartoonists are the Canaries of the media,” said First Dog on the Moon. “We freak out when a cartoonist gets shot but we ignore the routine shooting of journos.”
This inevitably turned the conversation to the horrific shootings in the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo Weekly, sparked by its depictions of the Prophet Mohammed.
Leahy cautions that there is more to that story than there appears, that the paper has a history of inciting anger and violence, a very different brief to the ones that these panelists operate under.
The cartoonist’s brief, as Sydney Morning Herald’s Cathy Wilcox draws it, is more to the tune of making us feel a bit better about the miserable world we live in.
Discussion expanded to the topic of humans appointing themselves as God’s violent crusaders, provoking Wilcox to defend the almighty.
“God should be able to intervene for him or herself.”
Even though First Dog on the Moon says all religions shit him, he laments, “we aren’t in a position to say what needs to be said about religion in this country”.
First Dog names the Murdoch press as being partly responsible for suppressing this conversation.
While it was agreed that depicting the prophet Mohammed is so loaded and antagonistic that it’s never going to be productive.
Wilcox adds that there are aspects of all religions that would do well to be made fun of, but this is framed against a backdrop of the wider world, where cartoonists can be shot for doing so.
The ability to make such articulate and cutting commentary, while using so few words and often very simple images, is a huge inspiration to me as an emerging writer.
I’m waiting with bated breath to see what Fiona the Unemployed Bettong has to say about Scott Morrison, and will be pinning her effigy to my desktop for inspiration when the soft toys come out in November (true story).
Jack Savage is a Bachelor of Arts Student at Southern Cross University. He is majoring in Creative Writing and Cultural Studies and is interested in disturbing the peace.