The Henson affair: Conflicting injustices?

Brian Martin, The University of Wollongong

The censorship of photographs by artist Bill Henson involved two conflicting injustices, from the points of view of the contending parties. For opponents of child sexual abuse, the key injustice was abuse of children, including photography without proper consent and encouragement for paedophiles and pornographers. For defenders of Henson, the key issue was artistic freedom from censorship. This clash can be usefully examined through the actions taken by each side, assessing whether these actions are characteristic of those used by perpetrators of widely accepted injustices.


On 23 May 2008, police raided the Roslyn Oxley9 gallery in Sydney, confiscated dozens of photographs by prominent artist Bill Henson and announced they would lay charges (Tovey, Kennedy & Dart, 2008a). The photos displayed a 13-year-old girl in various degrees of nakedness. Some of Henson’s photos in other galleries were also removed (Tovey, Kennedy & Dart, 2008b). The photos came to police attention through three complaints, amplified by attacks broadcast on Sydney radio station 2GB (Marr & Tovey 2008a).

Powerful perpetrators of injustice regularly use five methods to reduce public outrage.

Anti-child sexual abuse campaigner Hetty Johnston lauded the police action, seeing the images as pornographic and involving exploitation of the children involved. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd expressed his opinion that the photos were ‘absolutely revolting’, an attitude supported by Brendan Nelson, leader of the opposition.

Many artists took a contrary position, decrying the raid as an attack on artistic freedom. They pointed to Henson’s prominent role as an internationally recognised artist who had explored similar themes previously with no uproar. They said Henson was known for being sensitive with young subjects and had obtained their parents’ approval.


There is, of course, more than one way to examine the conflict over Bill Henson’s photographs. In the media debate we saw the polarised viewpoints of child safety and artistic freedom. Others have put the debate about the photos in the context of more general issues, such as the commercial sexualisation of children and the boundaries of art, or neglected issues such as children’s participation in public debates (valentine 2008). My approach is to look at the methods or tactics—the words and actions—used by partisans on the two sides. In rational discourse (Habermas 1984, 1987), issues are debated using evidence and logical argument. However, in actual conflicts, many other methods are used—police action, for example. My focus, then, is not the issues themselves—child protection and censorship—but on the methods participants used in the struggle.

To assess the tactics used in the Henson affair, it is useful to look at conflicts over injustice in other arenas. Powerful perpetrators of injustice regularly use five methods to reduce public outrage (Martin 2007):

  • covering up the action
  • devaluing the target
  • reinterpreting the events, including by lying, minimising consequences and blaming others
  • using official channels to give an appearance of justice
  • intimidating and bribing targets and witnesses.

The same five methods can be found in a wide range of perceived injustices, including censorship (Jansen & Martin 2003), defamation (Gray & Martin 2006), sexual harassment (Scott & Martin 2006), bullying, unfair dismissal, treatment of refugees (Herd 2006), labour struggles (Smith & Martin 2007), corporate disasters (Engel & Martin 2006), terrorism, torture (Martin & Wright 2003), invasion (Martin 2004) and genocide. Given that this pattern is so widespread, it makes sense to work backwards to examine the tactics used in a struggle to see whether they are those typically used by perpetrators of injustice. This analysis can help us assess whether partisans are playing fair by presenting their views honestly and openly or whether they are operating to minimise outrage from their actions by employing the methods listed above.


Given that the pattern of perpetrator behaviour in situations of injustice is so widespread, it makes sense to work backwards to examine the tactics used in the Henson affair to see whether they are those typically used by perpetrators of injustice. This analysis can help us assess whether partisans played fair by presenting their views honestly and openly or whether they operated to minimise outrage from their actions by employing the methods listed above.


Both parties to the controversy have been open in their actions.

When possible, perpetrators like to hide any actions likely to be perceived as unjust. If people don’t know about something, they can’t be outraged by it nor take any action. Yet Henson did not try to hide what he was doing. He approached his young subjects openly and asked permission of them and their parents. He displayed his photographs in public galleries. In terms of his art, Henson believed in exposure—in literal and figurative senses—quite unlike paedophiles, who operate covertly. Many of Henson’s critics also operated openly. The confiscation of artworks was done in the public gaze, and critics were open in their condemnation. They were trying to hide images of naked bodies, to be sure, but that is a different sort of cover-up than the one relevant here. The gallery received a number of abusive phone calls, including death threats. These were anonymous: the callers hid their identity (Walker & Gilmore 2008). It is possible that one or both sides acted covertly in various ways, besides the phone calls. If this occurred, the evidence is not available.

The available evidence, then, suggests that both parties to the controversy have been open in their actions, aside from anonymous threats against the gallery. In relation to the tactic of cover-up, neither side has behaved like a perpetrator trying to hide its actions.


Public outrage over an action is often limited when the target of the action has low status or is discredited. Killing someone thought to be a terrorist seldom generates as much concern as killing a valued member of the community, such as a doctor or altruistic campaigner. Therefore, perpetrators often try to denigrate their targets through derogatory labels, damaging information or evocation of prejudices. Some of Henson’s supporters have labelled their opponents, for example, as puritans (Oliver 2008) or as pursuing a ‘witchhunt’ (Westwood & Perkin 2008). Columnist Mike Carlton (2008) satirised the censorship. Headline writers were more forceful than writers, using terms such as ‘philistines’ and ‘small-minded people’ (McDonald 2008a, 2008b). Some of the critics of Henson’s work have criticised him, calling him ‘naive’ (Jefferies 2008) and, having ‘created pornographic images of children’, concerning which to ‘plead ignorance’ is ‘to mimic the simplistic and well-known rationale of an arms dealer’ (Tybell 2008).

Overall, public commentary in newspaper columns and letters was remarkably free of personal attacks. Each side was, for the most part, respectful of the other’s intentions compared, for example, to employers’ routine denigration of whistleblowers as dobbers and traitors or the labelling of asylum seekers as illegals, queue-jumpers and terrorists. Some on each side of the Henson affair devalued their opponents but, in the press at least, not in a conspicuous, systematic or vicious fashion. That said, this judgement should be tempered with two considerations. First, many nastier comments undoubtedly were made in private settings. Second, concerns about defamation probably limited publication of abusive comments in the mass media.


Open personal attacks were mild compared to what is meted out against stigmatised groups.

Perpetrators usually think of things differently from their victims. For police making an arrest, the use of force is proper procedure; the arrestee might call it police brutality. These contrary perceptions can be based on genuine beliefs about the way the world works. Diverging interpretations are to be expected. A self-serving framing of events is typical of perpetrators, but we can’t use this to assess whether a group is behaving like a perpetrator, because virtually everyone uses framing. The fact that Henson’s critics frame the issue in terms of child protection whereas Henson’s supporters frame it in terms of artistic freedom gives little guidance.

However, there are also interpretation techniques that are less easy to justify, including lying and blaming. There is not a lot of evidence of either of these. The debate seems to have been mainly an open expression of viewpoints.

Official channels

Internal grievance procedures, courts, anti-corruption agencies, ombudsmen, royal commissions: these are examples of official channels. Most people assume that official channels dispense justice: a court ruling will often be seen as definitive. However, when perpetrators are powerful—such as governments—official channels may give only an illusion of justice. For example, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Deaths in Custody seemed like a powerful formal response to a major social issue that was causing bad publicity for the government. The setting up of the commission gave the appearance that problems were going to be dealt with. The commission’s investigation was drawn out and formal; it took the issue away from campaigning to preparing of submissions and use of experts, and it delayed action. The commission came up with good recommendations—but few were implemented. All in all, the commission process served to ease pressure on the government without much effect on the basic injustice.

The main use of official channels in the Henson affair was involvement of the police and the law against Henson’s photos. However, the police and courts were not used to defuse concern about censorship. It’s possible to imagine a powerful artistic establishment, stung by accusations of child pornography, setting up a formal inquiry into the boundaries of art. Nothing like this occurred. It’s also possible to imagine a powerful free speech coalition referring complaints about censorship to an official body. In the United States, opponents of censorship might go to court citing violations of the constitutional protection of free speech. Nothing like this occurred in the Henson case. Neither side used official channels in a way characteristic of powerful perpetrators of injustice trying to allay popular concern.

The Classification Board—a typical official channel—ruled the photos suitable for public display with the classification PG: mild content, parental guidance recommended (Marr 2008). This was a victory for Henson supporters, vindicating their position that the photos were not pornographic. However, appeal to the Classification Board does not appear to be an outrage-reducing tactic by censorship opponents: rather, ‘The picture came to the board for classification when it was found in a blog discussing pornography and the sexualisation of children’ (Marr 2008).

Intimidation and bribery

The Henson affair shows how tactics of manipulation and control can be counterproductive.

The seizing of an artist’s work is likely to be intimidating to the artist and the galleries involved. Henson was reported as ‘taking the issue very hard’ (Walker & Gilmore 2008). Furthermore, other artists might have feared being caught in an expansion of the net. In the wake of publicity about the seizures, and condemnation of the photos by prominent figures, the Roslyn Oxley9 gallery received threats (Walker & Gilmore 2008). Thus intimidation from opponents of pornography played a role in the affair. There is no evidence of intimidation against critics of Henson’s photos. The police sought to interview the girl portrayed in Henson’s photos but she declined to come forward (Benjamin 2008). It is reasonable to suppose that being interviewed by police over a criminal matter would be intimidating to a 13-year-old. Bribery usually occurs behind the scenes and is difficult to document—and it is seldom called bribery by those involved. Examples are bonuses or promotions for taking the line of a powerful patron, or a settlement in an unfair dismissal suit contingent on a silencing agreement. There is no evidence of bribery in the Henson affair.


The Henson affair involves two competing senses of right and wrong. My purpose here is not to make a judgement about the two positions but rather to assess the methods used by partisans on each side. The main tactic used in the public debate was presenting arguments: evidence, analogies, precedents and rationales in support of a position. This is just what believers in free and open public debate recommend. But some other tactics were used as well. Some on each side denigrated the other, an approach called ad hominem or, in sporting metaphor, attacking the player rather than the ball. However, open personal attacks were mild compared to what is meted out against stigmatised groups such as whistleblowers and refugees. The most significant tactic, aside from rational argument, was intimidation, used by some opponents of Henson’s work: the confiscation of his photos and the threats against the Roslyn Oxley9 gallery.

Overall, there is little evidence that the tactics used in the Henson affair include those typically used by powerful perpetrators of perceived injustices. The most significant departure from arguing over the issues was the involvement of the police. Precisely because many saw this as unwarranted and excessive, the effect was to generate sympathy for Henson and the gallery. Henson and his work received extensive media coverage and became known to a much wider audience. For opponents of pornography, this was an unwelcome side-effect of a campaign intended to raise concern about the problem. As stated in an editorial in The Weekend Australian, ‘Sending officers into art galleries to seize pictures [was] counter-productive. … The raid gave Henson a new national audience. … If the goal was to protect these children, it backfired spectacularly’ (‘A good outcome: Lessons should be learned from the Henson affair’ 2008).

Thus, when an issue is contested largely through public debate, any significant departure from what are considered legitimate methods can be counterproductive. The Henson affair is normally conceived as reflecting a social problem, either pornography or censorship. Looking at it instead as a strategic interaction (Goffman 1970) leads to a rather different conclusion: the affair shows the robustness of public debate and how tactics of manipulation and control can be counterproductive.


Thanks to kylie valentine for helpful comments.


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Brian Martin is Professor of Social Sciences in the School of Social Sciences, Media and Communication at the University of Wollongong.

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