Raid on naked-photo exhibition sparks debate over censorship

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 May, 2008, 12:00am


Australians abhor 'wowsers'. For those not familiar with the term, the dictionary defines a wowser as 'a prudish teetotaller; killjoy' or, in general parlance, someone who gets their knickers in a knot about drinking, bad language and sex.

Sydneysiders, in particular, delight in their image as amoral narcissists cavorting on the beach. But this cosy piece of self-deception came crashing to a halt when the New South Wales vice squad raided the opening of an art exhibition in Paddington last Thursday.

The exhibition featured 41 works by photographer Bill Henson. The subject matter? Adolescent boys and girls portrayed, according to one breathless report, in 'a variety of provocative poses'.

Police seized a number of photographs and made for the door - the scene was later lampooned in a newspaper cartoon, showing a buff policeman (naked apart from a peaked hat) trying to carry a large canvas while protecting his genitalia.

Authorities have indicated that both Henson and the gallery owners could be charged under a clause in the Crimes Act that prohibits 'the production, dissemination and possession of child pornography'. If found guilty, one of Australia's most revered artists could be jailed for up to 10 years, while the gallery owners could be sent to prison for five years.

Apart from the indignity of the raid, the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery has received anonymous threats of violence and a public berating from self-appointed moral guardians such as Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who called the images 'absolutely revolting', and the state's premier, Morris Iemma, and opposition leader Barry O'Farrell.

The anti-Henson campaign is being spearheaded by The Daily Telegraph, Sydney's populist tabloid newspaper, which labelled the exhibition 'kiddy porn', despite support for Henson from most of Sydney's chattering classes and several of the teenage models, who are now adults.

'Exploitative and degrading images of children are exploitative and degrading - no matter if they are presented in a grubby magazine or in some Paddington art 'space' where you get a discount on admission if you're wearing a beret,' raged The Daily Telegraph.

Sadly, the issue is not quite as clear-cut as the editorial writer would have us believe. The prevailing legal opinion seems to be that the director of public prosecutions will have a very difficult time proving any sort of case against Henson or the gallery owners; such images are protected provided they have been produced 'for a genuine artistic purpose'.

Secondly - and perhaps even more importantly - the police action to many smacks of the censorship and bad old days of the 1960s when Australian governments routinely banned novels such as Portnoy's Complaint and Lady Chatterley's Lover, and smutty foreign films.

The debacle has ended the left's love-in with Mr Rudd, whose 'protecting families' and 'let kids be kids' comments are seen as prissy, even patronising. Less than six months into his prime ministership, Mr Rudd is being ridiculed as even more reactionary, morally conservative and out of touch than his predecessor, John Howard.

Many of the city's Labor-voting, chardonnay-sipping, bohemian art lovers are now beginning to wonder exactly what type of philistine they have elected as their prime minister. Could, they wonder, Paul Keating be lured out of retirement?