The Bill Henson Debate: Looking After Our Children Without Hysteria

Yesterday was a big day for my child. The start of term at the primary school he has attended since kinder, and the first day of work for the principal. Oh, and the day he had to fight through a media scrum to get through the front gate.

Yes, my child attends that school the one embroiled in the most recent installment of the Henson saga. At the time of the “incident” chronicled in an extract of David Marr’s forthcoming book, both my kids were there.

So as the moral panic that has surrounded this case since it first hit the headlines cranks into gear again, I want to set the record straight. I am not “revolted and horrified” (the PM), “outraged” (Malcolm Turnball) nor feeling “betrayed” (Bill Heffernan) that former principal of my child’s school escorted the godparent of a student at the school-internationally renowned artist Bill Henson-through the playground so he could see whether any of the children might be appropriate models.

Nor am I horrified, outraged, revolted or feeling betrayed that after Henson identified one girl and one boy, that the principal-not Henson-contacted the children’s parents, gave them the artist’s number and then bowed out: leaving the decision about making contact with the parents. The girl’s parents never made the call, the boy’s-believing the experience would be good for his confidence-went ahead.

Here’s what does concern me: the boy in the eye of this new storm. I understand he felt proud of his selection as an artist’s model, and was pleased with the photos. In the wake of reporters staking out the school and confused classmates asking questions, how might he be feeling now? How ironic that those fueling the current hysteria claim to be concerned about the child’s best interests when only the profoundly deluded would claim that the feeding frenzy that now threatens to devour this young boy serves to protect him.

The truth looks more like this. That adults with no awareness of the usual practice of schools when dealing with sporting and artistic scouts, no knowledge of the particular needs of this young boy, no insight into the factors the parents considered when deciding to involve their son and no concept of the social milieu in which those parents were operating (St Kilda has more artists than any other place in Victoria) have been invited by the media to pass judgment on decisions made by those well across these things.

If our former principal had taken George Lucas through the playground, and as a result the next child star of Star Wars 87 was born, would anyone be caterwauling now?

I suspect not, and the reason why is clear. It is that, despite the fact that police declined to press charges against Henson after forensically examining the photos they dragged from the walls of the Roslyn Oxley9 gallery in May-photos that the Classification Board subsequently rated PG-Henson is still considered guilty as not charged: a pornographer, not an artist.

The bottom line is that our children are vulnerable to abuse, but in nearly every case the perpetrator won’t be a stranger but someone close to them: a relative or family friend, their scout-master or parish priest. As far as I am aware, no child has ever been harmed by the godfather of a classmate looking at him while the principal of his school stood nearby. This suggests that while pillorying this particular artist, even banning him and all his kind from our schools for evermore may make us feel we are “doing something,” it will not make our kids safer.

So what can we do? The answer is to go for the real targets, not the easy ones. \ According to the National Association for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, keeping our children safe requires us to know where they are, to encourage them to trust their feelings and to share them with us, and to teach them that their bodies belong to them alone.

Children these days live cosmopolitan lives. The tools they use to learn about and interact with the wider world-instant and text messaging, social networking sites and what a colleague of mine calls “the google”-are Greek to many of us. But while this makes the panic about Henson comprehensible, it doesn’t make it sensible.

If we really want to protect our kids we need keep our heads.

Publication history

The Bill Henson Debate: Looking After Our Children Without Hysteria  The Age (Melbourne)