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Suffer little children

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, 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, these moments come more often 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 while only one in ten trusted newspaper journalists.

Such an instant of collective shame happened for many 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.

Writing an open letter in 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 to which The Sunday Telegraph can plumb, though 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” and she and her tiny organisation are often regarded in the field of child protection as loose cannons. They seem to garner more attention in sections of the media than their numbers, arguments or practical deeds might seem to warrant.

However, in a democracy it is hard to argue against her right to speak out about an issue which so clearly occupies her thoughts. 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 and, besides, people on the extremes can serve a useful purpose in gingering the rest of the community into at least thinking about an issue as significant as child sexual assault.

And while she voices little obvious concern about the balance all Western societies must find between individual freedom and the protection of the most vulnerable, she articulates the simple fears of many in our community. She may be exasperating to civil libertarians, political leaders and even 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 should be 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 who said she was contacted by “the media”, sent links to some of Crumb’s more “offensive” images and 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 “When did you stop beating your wife?” and many Australians now expect little better of The Sunday Telegraph. But their 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 or in any way qualified to comment on Crumb’s work or mental state. If Crumb’s journalist contact was right, one wonders whether Johnston had ever heard of the cartoonist before The Sunday Telegraph contacted her.

The whole Sunday Telegraph story hangs on similarly tenuous threads. 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 evidence and 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 of the arts and legal worlds who know anything about how Australia’s classification system actually works.

But inexcusable is The Sunday Telegraph exploiting the issue of child abuse to score a few points against the City of Sydney, the “arteratti” or bleeding heart liberals in general.

Newspapers that call for censorship are always playing with fire, but in this case using the issue of child abuse is unconscionable.

Authorities say more than 30,000 Australian children are abused or neglected each year. These are real children, suffering real cruelties at the hands of adults, sometimes strangers but more often members of their own family.

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.

Written by

David Ingram has worked as a journalist, educator or media manager most of his adult life, in Britain, Australia and the Pacific. He now works as a media and management consultant based in Sydney and is publisher of The News Manual Online, a professional resource for journalists and the media.

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