Who's Really Exploiting Children Here?


People in most walks of life suffer moments when they wish they were doing something else.

Sometimes it is because they’re bored or they want more money. Sometimes it’s because they are not achieving or their job no longer excites them. And sometimes it is because they are utterly ashamed of the behaviour of others in their particular field of work.

In journalism, such moments come more frequently than in most professions.

In the annual Ipsos MORI survey of trustworthy professions in Britain, journalists have taken bottom spot for most of the past 27 years. A poll by Roy Morgan found fewer than one in five Australians found TV reporters ethical and honest. Only one in 10 trusted newspaper journalists.

Such an instant of collective shame happened for many Australian journalists last week when the American cartoonist Robert Crumb announced he would not be attending the Graphic Festival at the Sydney Opera House because of intimidation by some in the Australian media, specificially because of this article in the Sunday Telegraph.

In an open letter to the Sydney Morning Herald, Crumb accused the Sunday Telegraph of "looking for ways to discredit me and the City of Sydney by using people like Hetty Johnston".

Most Australians have a fairly clear idea of the depths which the Sunday Telegraph can plumb but fewer may be able to place Hetty Johnston in this story.

Johnston founded an organisation called Bravehearts to campaign against the sexual abuse of children. She describes herself on the Bravehearts website as "a born lobbyist". To some in the field of child protection, Bravehearts and Johnston earn more attention in sections of the media than their numbers might seem to warrant.

However, in a democracy it is hard to argue against her right to speak out about an issue. Whatever is driving Johnston and however damaging some of her calls for censorship might be for the general wellbeing of a democracy, she clearly cares about the issue of child protection. People on the extremes can serve a useful purpose in gingering the rest of the community into thinking about an issue as significant as child sexual assault.

And while she voices little obvious concern about the balance all democracies must strike between individual freedom and the protection of the most vulnerable, she articulates the fears of many in our community. She may be exasperating to civil libertarians, political leaders and even to professionals in the field of child protection, but that does not mean she should be denied her opinions on children who are sexually abused.

But neither she — nor they — be should exploited.

But this, according to Crumb, is precisely what the Sunday Telegraph did.

Crumb says a journalist he spoke to took it upon himself to talk to Johnston. She says she was contacted by "the media", sent links to some of Crumb’s more "offensive" images, and then asked to comment on the fact that the Sydney Opera House was exhibiting his work.

This, of course, is a trick as old as journalism itself, up there with asking "When did you stop beating your wife?". Many Australians expect little better of the Sunday Telegraph. But the paper’s behaviour over the Crumb affair still causes many thoughtful commentators to cringe and many professional journalists to feel ashamed that — in the public mind at least — we inhabit the same profession.

Just because Johnston has strong, colourful and occasionally extreme views on what constitutes and causes child sexual abuse does not make her an expert on art or humour. It doesn’t qualify her to comment on Crumb’s mental state. If Crumb’s journalist contact was right, one is entitled to wonder whether Johnston had ever heard of the cartoonist before the Sunday Telegraph contacted her.

There are more tenuous threads in the story. Although it quotes "a spokesman for the federal Attorney-General’s department" as saying Crumb’s work "would almost certainly be refused classification", they offer no further evidence. It is far from certain that the Classification Board would make such a finding. Whether a spokesman for the Attorney General is overstepping his or her authority in making such a comment about an independent statutory authority is a separate issue, as is the strange quote attributed to "a spokeswoman for the Sydney Opera House" that they "would not show anything that is not classified". This will come as news to most people in the arts and legal worlds who know anything about how Australia’s classification system actually works.

What is inexcusable is the Sunday Telegraph exploiting the issue of child abuse to score a few points against the City of Sydney, the "arterati", and against bleeding heart liberals in general. Newspapers that call for censorship are always playing with fire, but to do so in this case using the issue of child abuse is unconscionable.

More than 30,000 Australian children are abused or neglected each year. These are real children, suffering real cruelties. They deserve better than being used as pawns in a newspaper’s political, ideological or marketing campaign.

National Child Protection Week starts on 4 September. The organisers this year are focusing on all the great work organisations and ordinary Australians are doing to address the issue and make our communities safer for children.

Their job is not helped by newspapers such as the Sunday Telegraph confusing the issue of child abuse with weird cartoons, by attacking people who care for both children and freedom of expression or by creating a moral panic about areas of public life — including the arts — which have no more to do with child abuse than do consumerism, fashion or sexualised images of teenage girls in tabloids like the Sunday Telegraph.

Both Hetty Johnston and the children about whom she cares deserve better. They’ve been exploited enough.


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