December 2008 – January 2009

The Nation Reviewed

Panic & censor

By David Marr
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

I was putting on a bit of dog for the fresh envoy of a Great European Nation. This was deep in the Howard era, and we were drinking coffee in one of the sitting rooms the Sydney Morning Herald used to have for receiving notables. The new ambassador, a man of pugnacious energy but approaching his last post, wanted some tips about Australia. "What you have to understand," I said solemnly, "is that we're new, rich and free but have a petit-bourgeois government." He snorted. "All governments are petit-bourgeois."

Watching the smouldering ruins of the Henson bonfire in the past few months, I've had reason to recall the old ambassador's wisdom. The transition from Howard to Rudd has seen not much change from the social caution of the old era. The liberals inside Labor are almost as embattled as they were inside the Coalition. That Rudd is, as we were warned, very, very conservative involves more than maintaining the American alliance. It also means continuing to promise fearful Australians protection from the excesses of art, film, television and now, above all, the internet.

As the year drags to a close, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy is fine-tuning a regime of internet censorship unique in the democratic world. Under direction from Rudd, the Australia Council is drafting protocols that will tie in bureaucratic knots any artist dealing with children and present extraordinary obstacles to their work being put on the net. And the nation's attorneys-general are roaming the outskirts of censorship law to try to crack down on images of naked children. Kevin Rudd's Australia is in a funk over art and kids.

The prime minister chose Frank Lowy's Westfield shopping centre in Parramatta, the old city embedded in the Sydney suburbs, as the spot to address community rage about Bill Henson's visit to a Melbourne primary school. I'd broken the story that a principal had allowed Henson to cast his eyes over the schoolyard before approaching a couple of sets of parents to see if their children would pose for him. The day of the news, Rudd brushed a question about it aside. But 24 hours later, in Parramatta, he had the words ready: "If the report is accurate, I'm disgusted by it. If the report is accurate, I'm disgusted by it. I think parents would be revolted and horrified if this were true."

A month later, the principal was cleared by an independent inquiry. The visit was kosher. The children were safe. But one of the defining marks of the Henson controversy is that official acquittals count for nothing much. The Classification Board and the New South Wales Director of Public Prosecutions cleared Henson's May exhibition, but by that time he had been cast in the role of cultural pariah. In July, Art Monthly's low-octane photographs of naked children were cleared by the Classification Board but that did nothing to silence those raging about immoral artists and endangered children. Then came the St Kilda Park Primary revelations, in my book on the Henson case, and the volcano erupted all over again.

I'd published seven books, most of them edgy, but none prepared me for the rage I provoked by asking readers to stand back from the Henson controversy, take a deep breath, and think. Somewhere in these weeks I realised that the study of panic is my speciality. For decades I've watched them roll across Australia, driven by a tabloid media that goes unchallenged by timid politicians. When panic arrives, facts don't count. Complexity disappears. All slopes are slippery. The only scenario is the worst-case scenario. Nothing is too small to worry about. And everyone has a high old time except the victims.

Panic over children is becoming embedded in the media. One night, after I'd been grilled on Lateline, the executive producer Tim Palmer came out for a chat in the darkened foyer of the ABC. Had I noticed the show pixilated the faces of kids playing in the primary school's grounds? That's what the rules require. Yet kids in the crowd at big football matches can be shown in close-up, cheering for their teams. Crazy. And filming and photographing school sports days is now verboten. What's happening here?

I had a good run on radio and television in those mad days, but it was a lonely business. After lobbing a few grenades, the politicians went silent. Gutless wonders. Malcolm Turnbull, the political hero of my book, turned tail once he became leader of the Opposition and was no longer saying brave things about art and freedom and the law. Peter Garrett concentrated exclusively on saving coral reefs. Though the Henson row is probably the biggest art controversy in half a century, the nation's arts minister had nothing to say. No politicians were game to stand up to the child-protection lobby and say the obvious: this panic was way out of hand.

Rudd was largely the reason. He denounced Henson without discussion. His door was closed to differing opinions. The only other prime minister of the past few decades who tangled himself in the arts was Paul Keating. His message to Australia was to lift its game. Though something of a connoisseur in his private life, Rudd has other instincts and another agenda. The cultural power of his office is to be exercised to reassure the fearful. Rudd Labor has been splendid on the Apology and good on gays, but in the arts it is determined to be respectable, Queensland-style.

Though deeply appealing to a large number of Australians, it's not going to play well in the increasingly tight contest for the sort of inner-city-liberal votes that helped topple John Howard on the north shore of Sydney Harbour and gave Malcolm Turnbull an increased majority in his seat on the south. Perhaps Rudd is acting from the heart. Perhaps he's pursuing Karl Rove's notion of a conservative working class that must always be lulled into submission. Either way, Labor under Rudd is back in the censorship business in ways not even Howard's government contemplated.

Terror of the internet seems to be at the heart of it. The Australia Council's new protocols are being imposed as a condition of subsidy on all artists who paint, photograph or sculpt children, and on the publication or exhibition of every artwork made in this country in the past 25 years that includes children clothed or naked. Artists working with children in future will be reminded to obey the law and parents will be asked to supervise the process more closely. Fair enough. But publication of the work - particularly on the internet - will become virtually impossible without complex permissions being sought and gained.

Art is being boxed in. Pictures newspapers wouldn't hesitate putting on their websites will be locked away forever because the artist or gallery or website can't get the permission of every parent of every child appearing in the image. Ask officers of the council what protection such rules offer real children from real harm, and their rather forlorn reply is that publication on the internet is by definition exploitation. They don't sound convinced. No wonder. This is being imposed on them by a government toying with the impossible dream of cleaning up the internet.

By Christmas, Stephen Conroy hopes to be road-testing Labor's policy of compulsory internet filtering. He has $44 million for the task. Among the young and the web savvy, Conroy has become a despised figure as the scale of Labor's ambitions emerges. China and Iran have mandatory schemes for censoring the net, but Labor would make Australia the only democracy on Earth delivering a "clean feed" to every home in the nation, whether it's wanted or not.

Again, it's supposed to be for the safety of children, but it's about much more than that. It always is. Kids only open the door of censorship. Quizzed by the young, new Western Australian Greens senator and graphic designer Scott Ludlam, Conroy snapped: "Illegal material is illegal material. Child pornography is child pornography. I trust you are not suggesting that people should have access to child pornography." By the end of their testy exchange at a Senate estimates hearing in October, Conroy had admitted that his net police will also be cleansing the feed of material on euthanasia and anorexia.

It's sillier than that. Under current law, material prohibited on the internet includes films anyone 18 or older can watch down the road at Hoyts. So if Conroy's filters are ever put in place, Australians would be unable to watch online movies like Leaving Las Vegas or Trainspotting. Independent senators, whose support is crucial for the passage of all contested legislation, are writing their own wish lists. Family First's Steve Fielding wants mandatory filtering of all hardcore porn and all fetish material. Anti-gambling campaigner Nick Xenophon wants the blocking of all online casinos. "The black list," Ludlam remarked, "can become very grey."

Labor's plan faces big technical challenges. Can software be written that will distinguish between porn and public health? How much over-censoring or under-censoring will be allowed? How will the filters affect the speed of the internet? What slowing of the whole system will be tolerated in the pursuit of a clean feed? What will be done to try to thwart the young and the media savvy who are already working out high-tech strategies to avoid the coming regime, strategies pioneered to beat internet-blocking in Burma and China?

Disbelief is the default response of Labor's liberals and those who remain so grateful that Howard has gone that they're not going to look too closely at the continuities between then and now. There are those who wonder if the Australia Council and Conroy aren't really setting out to show that these filters and protocols simply won't work: the sillier the better and they will all go away. But they don't understand the deep politics of censorship that survives untouched by time: being effective is never crucial. Governments only have to show they're doing all they can.

David Marr

David Marr is a writer and journalist. He is the author of the award-winning Patrick White: A Life, Quarterly Essay 38, ‘Power Trip’, and co-author of Dark Victory. He has been a reporter with Four Corners and the host of Media Watch.

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