To Melburnians of my generation (1978-79 and 1983-1997) Leunig was The Age.
This is shocking and tragic to see Victoria's institutions corrode and consume themselves to advance the interests of its despotic Premier.
Nick Tabakoff covers the sacking very well in this extended column.
Melbourne and Leunig deserved much better.
Michael Leunig’s storied half-century career as The Age’s best-known editorial page cartoonist has ended not with a bang, but a whimper.
A cryptic 39-word statement on its letters page last Monday said that the venerable Melbourne newspaper was “trialling new cartoonists” on the page.
Now Leunig has confirmed to Diary that he was axed from his prized Monday editorial page position by The Age, after it dumped a cartoon in which he compared Daniel Andrews’ threat of “vaccine mandates” for Victoria to the famous Tiananmen Square vision of “Tank Man”, the Beijing dissenter who defiantly faced off against the Chinese government’s tanks in 1989.
“ ‘Purge’ is a word that comes to mind,” he tells Diary of his axing. “Apparently, I’m out of touch with the readership.”
The cartoon never made it into the newspaper because The Age refused to publish it. But Leunig self-published on his own online site, earning angry criticism from #IStandWithDan supporters on social media. Leunig says The Age’s editor Gay Alcorn called him soon after she banned the offending cartoon to “break the news gently” that he was no longer wanted on the editorial page.
“Gay feels this type of cartoon is not in line with public sentiment, and The Age’s readership, who it does seem are largely in favour of the Andrews Covid narrative. But my job is to challenge the status quo, and that has always been the job of the cartoonist.”
Leunig has defended the offending cartoon: “The Tiananmen Square image is often used in cartoons around the world as a Charlie Chaplin-like metaphor for overwhelming force meeting the innocent powerless individual. In my view, it is a fair enough issue to raise in the most locked-down city in the world.” Alcorn’s message to him in the phone calls was that “I am too out of step with our readers” – even though, he says, a Michael Leunig Appreciation Page operated by The Age on Facebook currently has more than 213,000 followers.
“If what Gay says is right, I don’t much want to work for the sorts of readers who are so censorious. It seems that at The Age in particular, you can’t go near the Covid story except in a way that’s supportive of the Victorian government’s handling of it. And if you’re not supportive, that’s reason enough for you to be cancelled.”
Leunig has also let rip on how the news was revealed in The Age last Monday. “The way it was done was rude,” he said. “It was a pretty blunt, discourteous and frustrating way to have a half-century of editorial cartooning at The Age brought to an end.”
Leunig, who remains on the list of Australia’s 76 National Living Treasures, says that he has built “a reputation at The Age for being feral or a bit out of hand”. “But that’s the point of a cartoonist – not to be a wrecker, but also not to be too conventional or goodly,” he says. “My greatest dismay in all of this is the wretched state of cartooning and humour in The Age. It’s as if they want to destroy or subjugate cartooning.
“I do understand that a newspaper must be free to control its content and refuse to publish pieces as it reasonably sees fit. I have had cartoons censored during my 55 years of editorial cartooning and have always had the reasons for rejection explained to me by editors in intelligent, respectful ways. It is not rejection that bothers me. It’s the wokeism and the humourlessness, which seem without courage, good spirit or creative imagination.”
He also believes his perspective has increasingly diverged with The Age over time: “I come from an earthy working class perspective and values system, but that perspective increasingly seems out of touch with The Age’s cosy, inner-city mindset these days. The paper’s motto is ‘Independent. Always.’ But is it truly independent?”
Leunig now claims that he has had 12 cartoons censored this year, “all about Covid and/or Dan Andrews, with next to no explanation”.
When Diary reached Alcorn on Sunday, she maintained she still viewed Leunig as “quite brilliant” and noted that his lifestyle cartoons would “continue to be published” in its Saturday Spectrum section. “I’m not surprised Michael is upset,” she said. “He’s entitled to be upset if he wants to be.”
Alcorn confirmed she had censored a number of cartoons by Leunig this year: “I have pulled multiple cartoons by Leunig, almost entirely on the grounds that they expressed an anti-vaccination sentiment. We don’t mind cartoonists challenging the readers. We encourage diversity of thought, but I had a concern with cartoons perceived as anti-vaccination.”
Interestingly, The Age is already in full swing on a concerted marketing push for Leunig’s flagship annual calendar — a well-known money-spinner for Nine papers — and other Leunig merchandise. But Leunig’s comments to Diary today could make for an interesting dynamic.