Retired police superintendent’s view on the politicisation of complaints against Henson’s work

image source – Daily Telegraph gallery

Alan Leek points out in a letter to the SMH that he has a unique viewpoint on this case with a history of being both a police officer and an art exhibitor. Because that is a “front-page” link which will point to different Letters to the Editor tomorrow, I have reproduced the text in full below and will discuss my responses after the quoted material.

With a foot in both camps, I have watched with interest as this sorry Bill Henson episode has unfolded. I am in a position, perhaps unique in this farce, of having been a member of the NSW Police Force for 34 years and, for the most part concurrently, proprietor of a commercial exhibiting gallery for more than 25 years.

I am gobsmacked and bitterly disappointed that a police force, which is far better than the one I joined all those years ago and far better educated, still fails to see when it has been ambushed by the pursed-lipped paragons of public morality; those zealots who can’t separate nudity from sexuality and who rely on an obsequious police to do their bidding in glorious ignorance. Let’s face it; most police would not know their Ansel Adams from their elbow.

Debate is one thing, criminal sanctions are another. Debate should be welcomed – criminal sanctions stifle any opportunity for debate.

Henson’s art has nothing to do with exploitation or pedophilia, but enough has been said about that by those more qualified than I.

Not one of the pedophiles I arrested and prosecuted advertised their vile workings. They operated under the coward’s cloak of darkness and familiarity. Not for them the arc lights of a legitimate gallery – more the deeper crevices of the internet or the well-thumbed pages of their sordid juvenilia and other paraphernalia.

That senior police fail to utilise their discretion to uphold the independence of a profession I still hold dear, setting themselves up again to be pilloried for ill-informed actions that must surely fail, is a bitter pill for me.

Having worked with scarce resources, I shake my head at the waste portrayed by television images of police seizing crates of artworks, and wonder to what better use their expertise might be applied. Child protection, perhaps?

Ill-informed comment and motherhood statements from political leaders that further cast the burden on police are regrettable.

To ensure that public disquiet is addressed in the future and that the police do not continue to undo their normally laudable work, perhaps those same political leaders might consider a mechanism where pious complaints can be referred to censorship arbiters.

In the meantime, I commend Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, for standing tall when others have lacked the backbone to do the same.

In my various command positions, I would not have sanctioned the actions being taken by police. I would also have no hesitation in exhibiting Henson’s work.

In time, this whole inane episode will appear pretty dumb, but the damage to Henson and his subjects and lost opportunities for professional policing are inestimable.

Alan Leek (retired superintendent of police) Breewood Galleries, Richmond

I’m going to take a leaf from Kim’s book here: she has put up separate posts at LP, one continuing the general discussion of the public opinion/morality issues regarding Henson’s images, and the other for discussing purely the political aspects that have floated up as we watch the police (on whose authority?) extend their examination of Henson’s works to a variety of regional galleries and now the National Gallery as well, advising galleries, before a single charge has been laid, as to whether they should or should not exhibit certain images whether a complaint has been laid or not.

So this post is to discuss purely the politics of how the police, both State and Federal, have been persuaded to expend so much of their resources on this one case with high public visibility, and how it appears at first glance that in some instances of artwork seizure/gallery investigation they have grossly exceeded their authority. Reiterating: we are still in a position where no charges of any sort have been laid against either Henson or the Roslyn Oxley9 gallery regarding the images forming the basis of the original complaint against last week’s thwarted exhibition. It is right that such complaints should be thoroughly investigated, but the level of vigor expended on this one investigation in extending it far beyond the original complaints appears disproportionate, to say the least.

Those wishing to discuss the conflation of nudity with obscenity, issues of under-age consent, how to balance the necessary requirements of child protection with a rational view of adolescent nudity (and any images thereof), and the stoking of the fires of public outrage are welcome to join the discussion on my original Henson post, and those who particularly wish to examine how the adolescent subjects themselves might have felt about the experience of modelling nude are welcome to join the discussion on my post where I discuss my own experiences in modelling nude as a teenager for a photographer friend of the family (in the unusual circumstances of all of us being members of a social nudist club). I’d be very grateful if anyone else with experience of modelling nude when an adolescent wanted to share their own story, and totally understand if anyone wishes to do so only under a pseudonym different from their usual ‘net-handle.

On another political point, what about the various responses from actual politicians? Another point: regarding the fact that the major role of politicians aside from budgeting for public services/infastructure is to examine and modify where necessary our laws, what does it say about the laws with respect to child pornography that they appear (according to some legal opinions) to have no provision for extenuating circumstances where criteria can be applied as to whether a nude image is in fact pornographic or not? Can any law drafted without an eye to extenuating circumstances be said to be a good law?

Your thoughts?

P.S, You can see more images of the NSW police confiscating Henson’s images from the Roslyn Oxley9 gallery here, along with some censored images of some of Henson’s artworks. I notice none of the newspapers have camouflaged the faces of these adolescents – aren’t they supposed to do that?


Categories: arts & entertainment, culture wars, ethics & philosophy, law & order, media

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7 replies

  1. That was a very interesting, well thought letter. I must admit strong prejudices against the police so I was rather surprised to see this.
    I think another thing worth watching is how the opinion of ‘mainstream Australia’ (whatever that is) is presented in the media. Some of the polls run in the newspapers seem to suggest most people are on Henson’s side but then it depends on what newspaper and whether it is city or country.
    The letter from the 2020 Summit people is timely and sobering in the debate but the problem is that a newspaper like the Terrograph can use that to say ‘look we told you so, those artsy fartsy types are really out of touch’, which is the sort of ad hominem that works fine for them.
    Just looking around online opinion I have seen a sharp divide in online between what the Terrograph types would call the ‘educated arts elite’ and ‘mainstream values’, with views generally being ‘for’ Henson in the former and ‘against’ him in the later. While this divide exists I think the moral zealots in the Terrorgraph are probably winning. More prominent non-arts people need to publicly come out and support Henson if the mood in the media is to change.
    I have really been taken aback by all this. It makes me feel very blue seeing artists being persecuted like this. This is not the Australia I remember from even 10 or 11 years ago. The anti-child abuse campaigners have lost their focus and moved from awareness and victim support to uninformed attack what constitutes decency versus exploitative sexualisation. I have taken on, challenged and complained about predatory online behaviour so I am certainly not soft on this.
    Let us hope that in the effort to protect children from abuse, we as a society do not entirely taboo the child.

  2. I’ve just added some images to the post of the police crating up artworks etc with cameras all around them. I’m sure that the necessary investigation of the complaint against the pictures could have taken place without this media circus.
    Also, the gallery of images at the Daily Telegraph has put black bars across chests and loin areas, but not across the faces of the subjects. Why not? Aren’t they actually required to camouflage the identity of minors? The only media outlet I’ve seen which has pixellated the face on a Henson photograph is at ABC Online. Why haven’t they all done it?

  3. I dunno, I’m not really seeing police heavy handedness here. All the images are ones the media could take from the street, they weren’t invited inside. They are going to get hammered by all sides whatever they do and whatever they did, it seems to me the police procedures are the least of the issues.

  4. And I have to say when I read that letter this morning I was a bit dubious at his claim he would not have authorised any police action. Easy to say when you’re out of the game and it won’t be you copping the heat. His is an interesting perspective, but just one of many and like all arguments from authority falls as soon as we find that one brown duck: a retired copper with an interest in art who says otherwise.

  5. 1. Is removing the images as potential evidence a reasonable act? Debatable, but perhaps. I’m more concerned with how it was presented to the media, and how they knew to be there as the police entered the gallery. I can understand them arriving once the news had spread, but they appear to have been there waiting. Why?
    2. Leek says he would not have sanctioned the particular actions he’s already highlighted as problematic. I don’t think that’s the same as saying that he wouldn’t have sanctioned any investigation at all.

  6. The media knew about the complaint before the police removed the pictures. I doubt that there would have been a way to remove them without photos being taken. Someone would have been staking out the gallery from the moment there was news of a complaint.

  7. Fair point, su.
    A couple of the shots in the thumbnails have quite obviously been taken from quite close with a wide angle lens though. There can’t have been any necessity for the police to allow that.

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