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Shifty values: our laws are matters of opinion

By Suzy Goldsmith - posted Tuesday, 23 January 2007

I nearly wrecked the pastry for the mince tarts on the morning of Saturday, December 23. I was half-listening to the usual Radio National.

Geraldine Doogue had finished her program and Alan Saunders was a lazy 17 minutes into his show By Design, “… a program about how we shape our world. From the cities and buildings we live in to the cars we drive and clothes we wear …”.

The segment was called “Trends and Products”, and Alan’s guest was talking about security. In the midst of talk about “secure” homes and Internet communications free from the threat of direct contact, there was a sudden slide:


Saunders: You say it’s [the contact] illusory, but in some sense it’s real. I mean people can be arrested for downloading child pornography on the internet. Now, er the damage to the children has already been done, so you could argue that they’re not actually doing any harm to anyone, but we think it’s real, don’t we.

Guest: Yes we do, and by the way I think I would argue that they’re not doing any harm to anyone in that case, cause the damage as you say, has been done. The offence is not downloading something that’s out there, the offence er is is involved in the creation of it. Um, so I think that’s, what you say is true …

I abandoned the pastry, grabbed the phone book and dialled the ABC. “I’d like to make a complaint, can you put me through?” The switch replied, “Well I can take your complaint if it’s a short one”. I said my piece, and that seemed to be it. No reference number, no information about making a written complaint, … and no apology. This didn’t help the pastry. Hot hands are very bad for pastry and my hands were getting pretty sticky.

The segment was repeated in full later the same day, and continues to be available via the ABC website. I replayed it that night. I tried it out on the family. And to my amazement, I discovered that the guest was none other than Hugh Mackay, whose “contribution to Australian culture” according to David Dale “is that he provides an informed conscience”.

I spent some of Christmas morning typing up the transcript of the whole “Trends and Products” interview. I looked up how to complain to the ABC and the ABA. I googled the Australian Federal Police: perhaps viewing child pornography was OK after all.

Was Operation Auxin just a dream? The international nabbing of hundreds of child pornography viewers in 2004 was real enough. Indeed, someone was arrested in South Australia for the same offence four days before Saunders’ radio program first went to air. I bored my friends.


What bothered me so much?

  • watering down a serious offence against society;
  • slipping opinion such as this into a comfy show about design;
  • generalising the practice of making and viewing child porn in a way that minimises and trivialises its complexity and impact;
  • the implication that personal preferences, values, opinion, and so on, are separable from - and superior to - the law;
  • continued broadcast of this opinion via repeats and the web;
  • resistance to recording complaints (ABC) and lack of advice to callers on how to make complaints count; and
  • the pernicious effect of someone with Hugh Mackay’s status and reputation making assertions such as were made in this program. How does this differ from, for example, a Muslim cleric talking about uncovered meat and cats?

This is not the first time this issue has been raised (see On Line Opinion article by Ingrid Fjastad). To reduce a discussion of child pornography to a debate about “making and viewing: which one’s worse?” misses the point entirely.

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About the Author

Suzy Goldsmith is a Senior Research Fellow at the Melbourne Water Research Centre, University of Melbourne.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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