10 January 2010

Child Pornography and Artistic Merit...

It would seem that NSW is about to introduce legislation that removes artistic merit as a defense for images of children that are determined to be pornographic. The NSW Attorney-General, John Hatzistergos, has said that a working group tasked with making recommendations on this matter has recommended that a defense of artistic merit must lapse once an image has been deemed to be pornographic.

Simply, whether the 'artist' in question produced the image as art or not becomes irrelevant with respect to the charge of producing, possessing, or distributing child porn material.

The question then becomes what about images that are not produced for artistic purposes, but rather are nothing more than personal family photos. For example, what if the Attorney-General had a happy snappy of one of his children or his grand children taking a bath. Is this producing or possessing child porn? What if in his apparent pride he shows the photograph to a colleague or places it on his computer as a screen saver and it is seen by members of his staff? Is this distributing child porn?

I am totally against child pornography. I find it objectionable in the extreme, abhorrent. I am certain that my views on this topic and subject have hardened since the birth of Will. The thought of him being exploited for child pornography is repugnant in the extreme. However, I really do not see what harm there is in either his mother, his grandparents, or his aunts and uncles having a picture of the little fella swimming but naked in the pool. I cannot fathom how I could be investigated, arrested, and prosecuted for producing, possessing, or distributing child pornography.

On the artistic front. I am not an artist and cannot make the arguments for artistic expression that an artist might need in producing images of children that may or may not push the boundaries of art and child porn. However, I do accept that artists have a right to that freedom of expression. An artist who takes a semi-naked picture of a child with the full consent of the parents of that child for the purposes of creating art that may later be exhibited should not lose the right to claim artistic merit as a defense because someone, probably a bureaucrat, has deemed the image to be child porn. The current recommendation would see a panel created to determine whether or not the image was a valid image of a child.

I am wondering whether in the common law there is a requirement for the commission of a crime to include not only the actus reus or the act, but also a requirement for mens rea, the intent. Before a crime can be proven is there not a need to determine the intent of the alleged offender to commit the crime charged?

It would seem to me that the removal of artistic merit as a defense removes a right to create art. Clearly, Bill Henson's work is not everyone's cuppa tea, but all the same neither is what Picasso or Rembrandt produced either.

Interestingly, many are arguing that this working group was set up in response to the furore surrounding Bill Henson and the closing down of an exhibition of his work. If this were true, then it seems a little silly considering his work was assessed by the relevant classification authorities in this area and determined to not breach any standards with respect to images involving children (including the photograph above).

There is certainly a need to tighten child pornography laws and to eliminate this scourge from the community. However, it seems that artists who produce images of children are the softest target available for the government on this front. The idea of removing the artistic merit defense for artists is evidence of the government's inability to deal appropriately and comprehensively with the scourge of child pornography.

There will undoubtedly be more to follow once the legislation is introduced to the NSW parliament.

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